PRINCETON – Imagine children in filthy, worn-out clothes, living like squatters in unheated, abandoned buildings.
Life is even harder for the thousands who become sex slaves.
Thanks to caring people in the Sauk Valley and surrounding communities, these young Romanians have hope.
Volunteers with Another Child Foundation, based in Princeton, travel to Romania several times a year to meet physical and emotional needs, provide education and prevent human trafficking. ACF partners with an organization called Buckner Romania to provide the ministries.
Tim Oloffson, a 1980 graduate of Manlius High School, started the nonprofit foundation after delivering shoes to Romanian orphans in 2006.
“My heart was changed when I saw the need there,” the 50-year-old Wyanet man said.
Many Romanian children own only one pair of shoes, and cut the tops off when their feet grow. Unlike them, Oloffson’s daughter, Brittany – now a 20-year-old student at Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon – had “the best of everything.”
Why? Brittany was born in America, Oloffson said.
Denise Carl, 44, of Sterling, met Oloffson on the trip. She remembers bright smiles on children’s faces when they received new shoes. She traveled to Romania again in 2010, with ACF, to offer a Vacation Bible School.
“It’s rewarding to know you’re making a difference in these kids’ lives,” she said.
ACF volunteers also teach life skills to orphans at Transitional Living Center; provide needed items; and educate children at Point of Hope Development Center.
The transitional center prevents orphans who are aging out of government institutions from falling into the hands of human traffickers who prey on the vulnerable, often luring them with fake job offers, Oloffson said.
With a high orphan population, Romania is “a hot spot” for the European sex trade; 70 percent of girls become prostitutes or sex slaves, Oloffson said.
“That’s a number that’s just totally unacceptable ... It’s just so easy for those girls to get trapped.”
At the center, orphans who lack education and life skills learn how to budget, shop for groceries, schedule medical appointments, and other skills necessary for independent living.
The development center provides preschool and after-school programs to more than 100 children daily, according to the foundation website. They also receive hot meals, showers and health care.
Volunteers also distribute clothes, coats, backpacks, school supplies and much-needed shoes and socks. Kids love to pick them out, Oloffson said, because most never shop.
“We work with the poorest of the poor in this community,” he said.
The Rev. Phil Gronbach, 67, of Sterling, teaching pastor at New Life Lutheran Church, joined ACF in October 2011 to minister to Gypsy children in Romania.
“Gypsies are looked down upon,” he said. “They are at the bottom of society.”
Gronbach told them Jesus loved them and hugged them. The next day, they ran up to him, wrapped their little arms around his knees, and told him the same thing.
“They really were craving affection,” he said, “somebody that loved them, respected them.”
Volunteers work with the same children over and over to build relationships. A language barrier exists, Oloffson said, but “smiles and hugs go a long way.
“We just want to love children, and that’s what God calls us to do.”
Oloffson hopes, through the mission trips, others will be inspired to change their world – including their own communities.
“We need to look outside of ourselves,” she said.
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