By Paul Katz

Ioanna was raised in a Romanian orphanage. Like many of her peers, she had very little self-esteem and no hope for a happy future.

Working at this particular orphanage, my goals were to offer hope and foster self-esteem among the orphans, as well as to provide material aid and educational programs aimed at equipping them for the future.

We first met Ioanna in the computer center that we established in the orphanage. She was the shyest and most self-effacing of our students.

As the end of the school year drew near, we felt led to open a transitional home for some of the orphans who had graduated high school and needed to leave the institution. Ioanna was among those we selected for this program. She was happy to have a place to go and people to look after her, but at the same time frightened and sad to leave the orphanage that she had called home.

Ioanna was a good student, but with only limited scholastic experience her hopes for a decent job were limited at best. We enrolled her and some others in secretarial training courses and set up a couple of computers for them to work on. During this time, we tried to make these youngsters feel a part of our personal family. Ioanna grew especially close to our children and us. I remember the first time that she told us, “I never knew what love was, until I met your family.”

As Ioanna received help and encouragement from us, she had a quality of always wanting to pass on some of the same to others. She accompanied us on visits to needy families, helped us make packages of clothing and did whatever she could to return the help she had received.

One day, just before Christmas, as Ioanna was helping us in a “free store” that we had opened for the city's poorest families, a drama unfolded. Ioanna's mother, who had abandoned her at birth and only seen her three times in her life, walked into the shop, being on the city's list of those eligible to receive aid. Although Ioanna had had no relationship whatsoever with her mother, she recognized her when she entered, and whispered to me, “That's my mother.”

I observed as the woman focused intently on Ioanna and then coldly turned to start selecting clothes. I could hardly believe my eyes. Ioanna began to cry and hid herself in the back room, where my wife and others comforted her. I approached her mother and told her that the girl she had seen was her daughter, Ioanna. She replied with, “I know. I'm going to greet her after I get my things.”

Neither the city social assistance workers nor I could understand this woman's unfeeling attitude. Finally, I told her, “Mrs. J., I have known your daughter for a year and a half. I want you to know that she is not only a good student, but also a very good person who genuinely cares about others. She is going to do something good with her life, and you should be proud of her.”

Unmoved, Ioanna's mother left the store. A while later, she returned and spoke a few words to her daughter. When it was all over, Ioanna, smiling through her tears, told us again how thankful she is for our family, and how we were there when her own family was not.

Ioanna has now moved on from our transitional home, but not out of our hearts. She has a good job with a mobile phone company. She still spends most of her free time helping others in a variety of ways. She is no longer too shy to face the world, and is helping to make it a better place for those around her.

Paul Katz is the Project Manager of the F.A.V.O.R. (Family Action Volunteers Romania), a FCF Project in Bacau, Romania