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Vadim's party

Polly Timmerman
Vadim, an orphan in Moldova, celebrates his 12th birthday with Monmouth students.
(Editor's Note: This is a firsthand account from a recent Monmouth College trip to Moldova. )

It is his first day at the orphanage, and it is also his 12th birthday. He is shy, but smiling because he was told that there will be a birthday party for him today. Melody Cameron, one of the leaders at the Cupcui Orphanage in Moldova, tells us that he has never had a birthday party before. She says the other children have told him these parties are very special. He is guardedly excited sitting on a sofa while he watches us make "Happy Birthday" signs to hang around the room. Others are blowing up colored balloons and sticking them to the walls. Sometimes the balloons burst as the children try to negotiate the scotch tape and the balloons. When this happens the sudden “POP” makes us all jump and they look quickly over their shoulders at the adults in the room. Their frozen expressions seem to say, “Am I in trouble?! I broke it! I broke the balloon!” Their fear quickly fades and their giggling begins, though, as we all burst into laughter. We are so delighted to see these kids dancing around the room playing make believe volleyball back and forth with the balloons.

Vadim, the birthday boy, gets up every once in a while to walk by the table where we are working on his birthday cards. He seems amazed that such care is going into the design and color choices of our signs, for him. “Where is the blue marker?” a younger boy shouts in Romanian. “I need the blue marker again to finish my sign for Vadim!” I find myself as excited as a second grader as I snag markers for my own sign. I want all the colors of the rainbow on mine. I print "HAPPY BIRTHDAY VADIM! WE ARE SO HAPPY TO CELEBRATE WITH YOU!” I add pictures of candled cakes stars, and animals. A little girl stands close to me and I can feel her breath on my arm. “Ooooh…," she sighs admiringly as she looks wide eyed at my drawings. I need no translation to know she likes them. After I finish my sign, I secretly take it to the others in our group of Monmouth College students and alumni. I must get 8 signatures: Whitney Bergen, Noelle Burks, John Cayton, Natalie Lister, Mary Schuch, Sarah Stinson, Mary Stahl and David Byrnes. They sign their names just in time for me to grab the last bit of tape and place the card on the wall with the others.

Vadim is still sitting and watching from the couch. Occasionally he’ll hit a stray balloon that floats by his head. He is taking it all in. He is amazed. Then the director appears at the doorway with a big white cake ablaze with 12 candles. The room grows instantly quiet and we all look at each other. Melody says, “First, we’ll sing the American Happy Birthday song for you, Vadim, then those of us who know the Romanian version will sing that, too.” His cheeks are flushed now. He looks typically embarrassed by the attention, yet, still entranced by the bright cake. We sing our American lyrics and then some of the Romanian adults help the children to sing their version. Many of the children don’t know the song, and I’m sad for all the birthdays they never got to celebrate. The candles are blown out in two attempts. Then Vadim softly and courageously says "Thank you" in Romanian and turns to our group and says, “An tank you for bean here.” The fluffy cake is sliced up and pieces are distributed. It is delicious and moist and has a whipped raspberry filling.

There is still feverish anticipation in the room as some children gobble a second piece of cake. Balloons are batted around again with sugar-fueled energy. I look and Vadim is sitting quietly on the couch with two new friends scrunched in next to him. They are whispering in his ears. He is shyly smiling, not quite sure how to act, still happy, but a bit overwhelmed. Then, again, a surprise appears in the doorway and Galena, the organizer of the party, stands with five wrapped packages in her arms. “Presents!” We all say in our different dialects. She brings the gifts to Vadim. His face is radiant as she places them in his lap. He looks up at her and over at Melody as if to say, “Really? For me?” His new little buddies sitting next to him start to poke and jab him in an encouraging way. Their faces appear excited and a little envious. Vadim takes his time unwrapping his presents. His face is still beaming with disbelief and joy. Slowly he unwraps a frisbee, a squirt gun, a large coloring book and big set of markers (apparently he is quite the artist himself). When he gets to the last and largest package he tries to tuck it behind his back, but his wiggly friends quickly pull it out and toss it into his lap. One of the younger boys actually starts to unwrap a bit of the package, but Vadim gently pushes his hands away and stashes the gift again behind his back. Then he looks around the room at the people who are still eating cake, the children playing, and those of us talking with one another, or watching him. It’s as if he wants us all to continue enjoying ourselves. He seems to want the moment to just stop and freeze so he can take his time and savor every minute of this experience. I think he very much wants to open his last gift while at the same time (maybe even more) he wants it to remain a secret surprise that he can save and treasure. Finally, he pulls the present back to his lap. His little “helpers” have been told to keep their hands to themselves. He shakes the package, gently holding it to his ear. This package is wrapped in a crunchy, colorful, metallic paper and he likes the feel of it. He starts at one end and slowly begins to peel the tape from the edges. We are all hanging on his every move. He pulls the paper away and then the smile overtakes his face. He is holding a new soccer ball and the other boys in the room are straining to see it. So much joy over these five simple gifts. I look around the room at all the smiling faces and feel so fortunate to be here. I catch the eye of some of the people in our group. I think they may be thinking the same thought as me: “Hands down the best party I’ve ever been to.”

It is time to get on the bus now and leave the orphanage. We have spent the remainder of the day playing soccer with Vadim and some of the other children. I look at the bus as a few of the Monmouth students climb aboard. Then I look back at Vadim. His expression shows disappointment, but he is resigned. He seems sadly familiar with goodbyes. I wonder for a minute if this day has been as special for him as it has been for us. It has only been a few hours with the children of Cupcui, but it has meant so much. Have we done enough? Do they know how much we care? These questions disrupt my brain. Maybe someday we can bring others to share a special day like this. The thought makes me smile, and this smile I leave with Vadim.