When people experience hardships, they often need someone to lend them a helping hand.
For many orphaned children in Romania, that hand has been that of Nelson’s Bruce Halstead.
For the past 21 years, Halstead has worked, with the help of the community and the other members of the Kootenay Romania Relief Organization Canada, to assist orphans, the elderly and the poor in Romania.
The relief effort started after a television program with Barbara Walters, filmed right after the revolution, called The Plight of the Romanian Children aired.
“There were people there from every free country in the world after she showed that first film on 20/20,” said Halstead, adding that the film motivated him to act.
“As a result we went to Romania and adopted two children from there,” said Halstead.
Fourteen Romanian children were adopted to families in this area at that time.
“When we came back we got together with a few people and said ‘we’ve got to do something for that country.’ And that’s how it started.”
Since then, the organization has rebuilt an orphanage, three houses, a playground and is working on its second playground and two more houses as well as having distributed clothing and bedding to every corner of the country.
The organization is also preparing to ship its 11th container of supplies to the country.
“The 40-foot containers, there’s enough items in them to cover about 10,000 people, but I think this will probably be the last,” said Halstead.
“We’ve got some other projects that we’re looking at there with building houses for the poor and expanding at the children’s camp, and we want to get those things underway so I think we’re going to work on projects more,” he said.
Halstead said the containers take a massive amount of work to send and most items are donated
“Nelson has supported us just 1,000 per cent. I give slideshows and talks but I never advertise. I put out word of mouth and my phone rings every day now with [people wanting to contribute],” said Halstead, who has been in Nelson for over 30 years with his wife — both retired police officers.
“This is a caring community — we live in that type of place.”
The 11th and last container is expected to be shipped in May for distribution in June and July.
Halstead said the Romanian orphanages grew quickly mainly because of a struggling economy.
“In a developing country like that you’ve got about 10 to 15 per cent of the population who are old bureaucrats that are extremely wealthy, probably 15 to 20 per cent of what we would call middle class and the rest are destitute,” said Halstead.
“Birth control was totally illegal under the Communist system… mom and dad would have five or six kids and when number six or seven would come along they couldn’t afford to feed it, so what do they do? Kick the old one out or the new one that they’re not attached to gets turned over to the state. That’s why orphanages grew so fast.”
Halstead adds at one time 100,000 kids were in orphanages, which quickly grew to 300,000.
He says since Romania joined the European Union they’ve started a foster care program, but there are still many children in orphanages.
Halstead, who has been to Romania 31 times, said the most rewarding part has been watching the children grow up and being able to help them.
“We’ve seen them grow from infants right up and are now out of the orphanages at 18 years old,” he said.
“Walking into an orphanage and having 150 children run at you saying ‘poppa Bruce, poppa Bruce.’ That’s pretty rewarding.”
The Halsteads’ own adopted children have experienced a “total change.”
“Our son who was adopted when he was five weeks old is now in fourth-year university going into medicine and our daughter is just graduating this year from high school and she’s going to help us with the distribution,” he said.
“They’ve both been very willing and helpful and instrumental in the whole program of wanting to give back… they appreciate the conditions and the need as well.”
Those wanting to get involved or to donate can contact Halstead at 250-825-4206.
“It’s been rewarding. It’s the type of thing that you can’t just sit by,” he says. “Life is too short to sit by and see people suffer when you know you’re able to help — that goes for here [in Canada] as well.”