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Giving life to the forgotten

Livada. In Romanian, it means "orchard" but it also means a lifeline for orphaned children in Mures County, Romania. Founded by Rockdale native Bruce Thomas in 1991, the orphanage recently received some hometown support when a 20-member mission team from Ebenezer United Methodist Church embarked on a 10-day visit in June that would prove life-changing for all involved.

Livada’s mission is to "help orphans find their place in the world, through a blend of Christian social work and humanitarian aid." The ministry includes outreach to children in state care facilities, three family-style group homes, mentor apartments, private foster care and prevention of abandonment efforts in Gypsy villages. Their staff includes 40 Romanians, volunteers from America and Europe and western missionaries. Ebenezer’s team concentrated their efforts running a summer day camp for Gypsy children and assisting nurses at the Ludus Baby Hospital.

Mission team leader Stacey Wertz described unimaginable conditions at the Ludus Baby Hospital. Babies up to the age of two are confined in metal cribs and receive only two diaper changes a day from the two nurses for allotted for 16 children. Wertz was also surprised at the third world living conditions they encountered in the Gypsy village of Alpina. "Romania is still suffering from post-Communist malaise. You don’t expect a European country to look like that," she said. The average Romanian earns less than $300 per year. Romania, a country smaller than the state of Oregon, has over 62,000 children in state care, the highest number among EU countries. Adding to the orphans’ plight is the rampant physical and sexual abuse in these institutions. Most orphans in the system are "social" orphans abandoned by Roma, or Gypsy, parents who are unable to care for them.

For Wertz and her husband Pablo Dopico, it was a very personal journey. The couple lost their 8-year-old daughter Lauren three years ago in a car accident. Wertz was also joined by friend Lee Ann Clapper who lost her daughter, Meghan. "This trip meant a lot to both of our families," said Wertz. Dopico and Wertz went to Peru in 2008 on a medical and construction mission where they placed some of Lauren’s ashes in a church they built there. "When we returned, I became determined that we needed to start a foreign missions program at our church. That’s how this Romania thing came about for us," she said.

The most meaningful moment for Wertz was at the end of the trip when they distributed over 200 blankets from Ebenezer’s blanket ministry in honor of Lauren and Meghan, to the Romanian children. When they first arrived and began working at the camp, the kids were "so unruly with no earthly idea how to act or behave, it was like trying to herd cats, but by the end when we gave each child a blanket and prayed over them, they were still and quiet. They sensed the importance. It was really amazing," said Wertz.

Wertz is hosting a Livada "friendraiser" at her home at 6 p.m. on Sept. 26. Thomas will be in town to share more about Livada. For more information, call Ebenezer UMC at (770)922-8447 or visit