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Dentist Brings Smiles
to Romanian Orphans



[ Feature 2 Photo]
Photos Courtesy of Steve and Laura Curran

Dr. Steve Curran has been leading dental missions to Romanian orphanages since 1995. In addition to dental work, the children receive many donated gifts.


 

An Ohio dentist and his wife explain why their Eastern European adoption experience led them to bring desperately needed dental care to children in Romanian orphanages.

By Mary Jo Dangel


 Twice Blest

 No Shortage of Volunteers

 Lots of Cavities, Lots of Love

 Improving Survival Chances

 Lingering Memories

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 of abscesses.

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 their home.

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 similar upheaval.

Twice Blest

Laura acknowledges 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 agency.

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."

Overcrowding 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."

Laura stresses 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.

Abortion, which 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 filthy orphanages."

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 God."

No 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 tears."

The experience 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 become available.

 

Beth 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 oral-health project.


 

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 days—it's difficult for dentists and their assistants to leave their jobs for longer periods of time. These American volunteers are responsible for their own expenses—some have received financial assistance from their parishes.

"We've never 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.

The conditions 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.

Children from the orphanage often attend schools in nearby towns, where other kids ridicule them—it'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.

Lots of Cavities, Lots of Love

The orphanages 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.

The dentists 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.

 


"It's not 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.

Donations of items, services and money come from individuals, schools, organizations and corporations—shipping 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 project—paperwork, packing boxes, soliciting donations. She also sends photos and videos to donors so they are assured that their gifts were received.

Improving Survival Chances

"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.

While working 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.

 
Leah (left) and Hope Curran wear traditional Bulgarian dress.

 

The oral-health 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 missions.

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.

Lingering Memories

Saying good-bye 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 room—a 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 rented—it 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.

Each volunteer 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 me."

Reflecting on 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.

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