BUCHAREST, Romania -- Whenever he returns to the orphanage where he grew up, Florin Catanescu is overwhelmed by sad memories.
“I remember families showing up and visiting other kids, but nobody came for me,” said Catanescu, now 41.
Walking through the ruins of what was his home between 1988 and 1997 in the mountain town of Busteni, in central Romania, he pointed to where the bread cabinet used to be in the mess hall. Back then, it was a cherished site for the kids.
“We wouldn’t quench our hunger at lunch, so we ate bread to fill our stomachs,” Catanescu recalled. “The only good times were when foreign aid workers would come over and spend time with us.”
After Romania's revolution overthrew its communist regime in December 1989, news media from around the world focused on the appalling conditions of Romania’s state-run orphanages. Testimony from survivors and documented evidence revealed frequent beatings, emotional abuse, children tied to their beds and some even kept in cages.
With an estimated 100,000 children in state care at the time, only a few were lucky to be adopted by families abroad.
Most of them, including Catanescu, stayed in the orphanages, suffering beatings and going hungry until Romania decided to shut down the institutions and move orphans to foster families or smaller homes with specialized staff. The change came slowly but has led to better conditions overall, although reports of abuse still occur.
"Almost all orphans dream of having a family. Those that don’t (have one), are trying to improve the system,” said Catanescu, who is leading by example and turning trauma into commitment.
He now runs a transition home for youngsters who are coming out of state care homes at 18 with few life skills or job prospects. The home is funded by donations of money, equipment and supplies from at home and abroad. His center, currently with room for 18 boys, offers social services, counseling, advice on writing resumes, coaching for job interviews and further education.
The effects of Catanescu’s work, however, stretch beyond those immediately in his care.
He is a big fan of “Pay it Forward,” the 2000 film about Trevor, played by Haley Joel Osment, a young boy who launches a goodwill movement. It inspired Catanescu to ask the boys he cares for to do their own charity work and help those in even greater need.
Some of the boys, for example, have taken food packages and gifts to families living in deep poverty, like they did this year before Christmas.
Andrei, 19, came to Catanescu’s center three years ago. He’s not an orphan, but he came from a broken home and was involved with a “bad entourage,” Catanescu said.
“The first time I went to a poor family to bring them some gifts, I cried,” Andrei recalled. “It made me realize that there are people far less fortunate than I am. I was taught to appreciate what I have and the good people around me lending me a hand.”
As Catanescu deals with the present, Romania is also taking steps to settle its past, trying to bring some semblance of justice for the children who suffered so deeply.
Based on available records, as many as 20,000 children may have died in the communist-era orphanages.
Researchers at the Romanian Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes (RIICC) have documented the deaths of 771 children at just four state-run homes during the communist era. They have also filed criminal complaints against those considered responsible, such as orphanage officials and staff, with the Attorney General’s office.
Prosecutors will now investigate as well, gather additional evidence, file charges and seek guilty verdicts in court.
“When the first convictions start rolling in, we wish the Romanian state will recognize these children as victims of the communist regime and thus provide some help plan for them to lead a normal life,” said Florin Soare, an RIICC researcher.
Plans by Romania's late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to increase the country’s population included banning abortion. His scheme, however, increased both child mortality as well as the number of children suffering from birth defects. Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed after a show trial on Christmas Day, 1989.
Back in Catanescu’s home, the boys, assisted by volunteers, have learned to cook a traditional Christmas meal.
Sitting all together for a Sunday lunch, Catanescu envisioned celebrating next Christmas with an even larger group — he is renovating a building with space for 30 more boys.
“It’s hard for me to help myself. I find it much easier to help others,” Catanescu said. “Since my life was tossed aside (by my family), I might as well dedicate myself to lending these kids a hand.”