OVER 1,200 POOR
CHILDREN IN ROMANIAN orphanages have received desperately needed
dental care as a result of an Ohio couple's adoption experience
in Eastern Europe. Steve and Laura Curran recall the unusual
circumstances that led them to develop an oral-health project
that sends dental teams from the United States to treat kids
who suffer from numerous cavities and an unusually high number
Most of these
kids have never owned a toothbrush, notes Dr. Steve Curran,
a dentist with a private practice in Cincinnati. Laura, seated
next to her husband in their living room, explains to St.
Anthony Messenger that she coordinates the project from
It all started
because the Currans, who were married in 1981, had problems
conceiving a child. They adopted Rebecca in 1986 in Cincinnati.
"Rebecca was three days old when we took her home," recalls
Laura. Two years later Laura "turned up pregnant with Luke."
Then in December
1990, they were watching a segment on ABC's 20/20 about
Americans adopting children who lived in Romanian orphanages.
The Currans were so moved by the story that they decided to
try to adopt a Romanian child.
At the time Romania
was in transition following the 1989 revolution and Christmas
Day execution of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The media
were beginning to expose the terrible conditions in the country's
orphanages. As Communism crumbled, nearby countries were experiencing
that there's more paperwork involved in foreign adoptions but,
she stresses, "It's not insurmountable." After the Currans had
filled out the necessary forms, they were told by a Baptist
missionary in Romania that "Romania has closed its doors because
of all the bad publicity." But the missionary gave them the
name of an organization that might be helpful: All God's Children
International (AGCI), a nonprofit Christian adoption and relief
When the Currans
contacted AGCI, they were told that the agency was beginning
to arrange adoptions of orphaned and abandoned children living
in orphanages in Bulgaria, located south of Romania. (Both countries
are eastern neighbors of Yugoslavia.) Not long after applying
for a child to adopt, the couple was notified that twin baby
girls who were both cross-eyed were available.
In January 1992
Steve and Laura traveled to Bulgaria to receive the 13-month-old
twins they would name Hope and Leah. Laura says, "The week we
cried in front of the TV watching 20/20 was the week
that Hope and Leah were born and placed in an orphanage. So
we feel that God placed that in our hearts through something
as simple as a TV program." The twins have had operations to
correct their eye problems, she explains.
Laura says they
went to Bulgaria to pick up the twins so they could "see the
culture the children came from." Unlike adoptions today in the
United States, little background information is given about
children who are adopted in Eastern Europe.
The Currans were
informed that their twins are of Gypsy descent, as are about
50 percent of the children who live in these orphanages. "The
Gypsy population is the most misunderstood ethnic group over
there," explains Laura. "Bulgarians and Romanians would seldom
adopt a Gypsy child."
and poor nutrition are just some of the problems found in Eastern
European orphanages. The
Currans still recall their first visit when they saw rooms filled
with silent children. Dr. Curran explains, "Nobody comes if
they cry, so they don't cry anymore."
that most of these kids come from poor families who love their
children but can't afford to raise them. These parents believe
their children will have a better life in an orphanage. Many
abandoned children also live on the streets.
had been illegal in Romania before the 1989 revolution, is now
being encouraged. But the Currans do not believe that abortion
is a solution to the problem of abandoned children.
A 1998 article
in National Geographic says, "The scandal of Romania's
streetchildren is the legacy of the revolution's single most
unforgettable revelation to the outside world....About 100,000
children live in institutions in Romania, but many of those
abandoned by their families [are] adopted by the street." The
article describes children in an orphanage whose heads are shaved
to combat head lice. Media coverage is credited with exposing
"neglected children living miserable lives in ill-equipped and
In this formerly
Communist country, over 70 percent of Romanians belong to the
Orthodox Church, and there are a substantial number of Catholics,
in addition to some Protestants, Jews and Muslims. Yet there's
little, if any, religious instruction in the state-run orphanages,
explains Dr. Curran. "Many of the children don't even know about
Shortage of Volunteers
Laura and Steve
met when they were students at the University of Cincinnati
who both worked at a local Thriftway supermarket. "He was the
produce man and I was a cashier," she recalls. She earned a
degree in graphic design and he earned a degree in biology before
heading to dental school at Ohio State.
The Currans belonged
to a charismatic prayer group at St. George Church for many
years. They credit this group with influencing them to be more
charitable with their talents and treasures. Dr. Curran also
recognizes the influence of the nuns who taught him in elementary
school that "faith without good works is empty: You've got to
do something good for humanity."
For many years
the dentist has been volunteering his services at Teen Challenge,
a Christian drug-rehabilitation program. And in 1993 he joined
a team of American doctors who went to a Romanian orphanage.
"When you picked the children up, they clutched you," recalls
Dr. Curran. "You had to peel their fingers off when you put
them down. There wasn't one person who left that place without
left haunting memories and the realization that this was the
environment in which Hope and Leah would have been living if
he and Laura had not adopted them. Thus, plans for an oral-health
project began to evolve.
The Currans asked
All God's Children International to sponsor the project because
they were impressed with the Christian agency's high ethical
standards and concern for the welfare of
the children who remain in orphanages. One of AGCI's programs
employs "special mothers" who cuddle and care for two or three
developmentally delayed children living in Romanian orphanages.
The children have shown marked improvements in psychomotor development
and emotional health. Additional women will be hired as funds
Uhl (left), a registered dental hygienist from Ohio, appears
to have a happy patient at an orphanage in Alba-Iulia, Romania,
where other elated children display gifts distributed by the
In 1995 Dr. Curran
led AGCI's first dental mission in Romania. Since then he's
been leading a team twice a year to orphanages in Bucharest,
Ludus and other places in Romania. In 1998 they treated 140
children in an orphanage in Sighisoara, the town in Transylvania
where the real Dracula was born. Each trip lasts about
12 daysit's difficult for dentists and their assistants to
leave their jobs for longer periods of time. These American
volunteers are responsible for their own expensessome have
received financial assistance from their parishes.
been short on volunteers," explains Laura. "It's like that movie
Field of Dreams where they say, 'If you build it, they
will come.' The volunteers keep coming."
The project sends
supplies ahead, stores mobile dental equipment in Romania and
rents a van for transportation. Volunteers stay in hotels.
at the orphanages vary greatly, explains Dr. Curran. "I've been
to orphanages where there's no running water inside." One orphanage
had no hot water. These factors, along with understaffing, result
in no one reminding the residents to bathe or brush their teeth.
As resources become available, however, improvements are being
made in many orphanages.
the orphanage often attend schools in nearby towns, where other
kids ridicule themit's assumed that something must be wrong
with them because their parents placed them in orphanages. When
the children return to the orphanage after school, it's unlikely
that anyone will remind them to do their homework or tutor them.
Thus, many lack employment skills when they grow older and must
leave the orphanage.
of Cavities, Lots of Love
house anywhere from 80 to 250 children, says Dr. Curran. On
a typical trip dental missionaries of various faiths restore
about 550 teeth and extract over 100 teeth. It's not unusual
to see eight-year-olds with missing molars and swollen abscesses.
"You have kids in some orphanages with scars on their chins,"
he says. These are from abscesses that were drained in a hospital,
yet the tooth that caused the problem is still there.
are inclined to take more radical steps than they would back
home, explains Dr. Curran. They use the most efficient methods
that offer long-term care. That's why there are so many extractions
on such young children.
unusual to see
eight-year-olds with missing molars and swollen abscesses."
In an effort
to provide these children with more frequent dental care by
local dentists, AGCI's oral-health project began a dental-internship
program in 1998. This program pays the final two years of tuition
for selected Romanian dental students. In return the students
agree to work for the project for a minimum of two years following
graduation. While they are students, they assist the American
dental teams and observe their techniques. The interns will
also travel periodically to the United States for continuing
dental education. The first two interns were chosen last summer.
In addition to
providing free dental care, the oral-health project also provides
each child with a toothbrush and toothpaste, along with oral-hygiene
instructions. Each child also receives clothing and a toy or
other age-appropriate item.
items, services and money come from individuals, schools, organizations
and corporationsshipping costs alone run over $1,000 for each
trip. Laura says that a local group called the Mission Workers
sews teddy bears, backpacks and other items for the kids.
The Currans have
some long-range goals for their dental project. They want to
have "more people trained to lead the trips so we can have more
trips each year," explains Laura. (Each team must have an experienced
leader.) They'd also like to expand the program to cover additional
countries. And Laura could use more help coordinating the projectpaperwork,
packing boxes, soliciting donations. She also sends photos and
videos to donors so they are assured that their gifts were received.
"Some of these
kids may never be available for adoption according to our immigration
standards, but you've got to give them a chance at surviving,"
stresses Dr. Curran.
In addition to
arranging over 350 international adoptions, AGCI has started
a new program that provides care for children with physical,
developmental and emotional problems in Romanian and Bulgarian
orphanages. As funding allows, this program renovates orphanages
and trains caregivers who are each responsible for three children.
at one of these orphanages that houses about 20 children, Dr.
Curran grew close to a bright, engaging Romanian boy named Nicholas
who was born without part of a leg. The four-year-old child
has reached the age where he would be transferred to an orphanage
with over 200 children. The Currans are adopting this boy and
bringing him to the United States to join their family.
(left) and Hope Curran wear traditional Bulgarian dress.
project is a family affair at the Curran household, where the
children help pack boxes and perform other age-appropriate tasks.
"I think it's given them a global understanding of our Christian
responsibility," explains Laura. As the children get older,
their father hopes they will join him on the overseas dental
The Curran family
belongs to St. Anthony Parish, which they describe as economically
and racially diverse. The children attend St. Ursula Villa,
one of many Catholic schools in the area that have helped sponsor
trips by collecting and packing donations.
to the children in the orphanage is the most difficult part
of these trips, says Dr. Curran. The nameless faces the dental
teams encounter when they first arrive soon become individuals
with identities and stories.
He recalls Erica,
a young girl who had lots of cavities in her front teeth. When
her dental work was completed, Dr. Curran gave her a gift he
was saving for a special child: a porcelain doll. Usually all
the children receive the same items so there's no jealousy,
but only one porcelain doll had been donated.
"She lit up like
the Fourth of July," he says, showing a photo of the child with
her doll. Every time he saw her that day and early the next
morning, she was hugging her new doll and smiling a big smile
that showed off her pretty teeth.
A little later
one of the other children told Dr. Curran that an older boy
broke Erica's doll. Although the dental team was ready to leave
the orphanage, Dr. Curran rushed to Erica's rooma small room
with 10 beds. He rummaged through the small pile of "rags" that
were her clothes and found the doll's head. Then he went over
to Erica, who was sitting on her bed.
"I was crying;
she was crying," he recalls. "It was an incredibly humbling
experience holding this little girl who had nothing to her name.
She had one nice thing for 24 hours, and it got destroyed."
He heard the
horn beeping in the van the dental team had rentedit was time
for the mobile dental clinic to leave the orphanage. But he
sensed that Erica's need for compassion was greater than the
team's need to stay on schedule, so he stayed a bit longer.
While he was
comforting Erica, another child was comforting him. Thus, the
caregiver realized that the experience of these children makes
some of them very bitter and others very sympathetic.
has memorable experiences, notes Dr. Curran. "God works on these
people on these trips," he says. "They say, 'I went thinking
I was going to make a difference in a child's life. But I'm
the one who had the biggest change.'"
Dr. Curran admits
he's changed over the years from a person who once had a very
difficult time donating his hard-earned money to charity: "It's
kind of a slow evolution and I'm sure God's still not done evolving
the reasons he and Laura developed the oral-health project,
he says, "If we hadn't gone through problems with infertility,
we wouldn't have the children we have today and we wouldn't
be doing what we're doing."
For more information,
contact All God's Children International, 4114 N.E. Freemont
Street, Suite 1, Portland, OR 97212. Telephone: 800-214-6719.
Web site: www.allgodschildren.org.
Mary Jo Dangel
is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger who earned a
B.A. in communication arts from the College of Mount St. Joseph.