Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2010 | People

A Heart Wide Open

By Lily Allen-Duenas
Iowa Voyagers traveler Lily Allen-Dueñas shares why her volunteer trip to a Romanian orphanage left her with a heart wide open.

And so, I fall in love. The minute I see her, I know it. Mihaela, a little two-year-old girl, is the smartest baby ever. She has gorgeous blue eyes and dark, curly hair. She runs around and giggles. She sings along to "If You're Happy and You Know It" with me and we dance together. After only two days in the clinic, I'm already wondering if there is any way to switch my flights and stay with her for three weeks instead of two.

Mihaela loves the window. She knows how to open the screen and she sticks her head out while I firmly grip her. We bark like dogs—"arf arf" and "hum hum," which are the noises that dogs make in Romania. I'm here volunteering in an orphanage in Tutova through an annual scholarship offered to University of Iowa students through the UIAA's Iowa Voyagers travel program. I arrived with my fellow scholarship winner, Chelsey Stecher, on June 5, ready to nurture and love

children who radiate so much joy despite their challenging circumstances.

Romania is a second world country, beautiful and rich in culture, even as dilapidation and poverty abound. Many of the children in the Tutova orphanage are here because their families are too poor to care for them. They struggle with developmental and behavioral issues, including autism. But they know how to steal my heart, especially the wild and mischievous Mihaela.

Her grandparents plan on adopting her when they have enough money. I hope they are warm, caring people who can give her as much love as she gives everyone around her. If I ever do return to Romania, I'd like to search her out and see how she's doing. At least I know that all the volunteers who come after me will celebrate her and love her. I know she'll one day lead a happy life, full of adoration and praise.

Chelsey Stecher cuddles baby Raul.

Saying goodbye is beyond difficult. In an unbelievably precious two weeks, I've given my heart, broken my heart, and left a piece of it halfway across the world in the hands of a beautiful child. I knew that this experience would be life-altering, but I had no idea the extent. Chelsey agrees that Romania is transformative in ways we never expected. She says the children have taught her to always have a positive outlook on life and to cherish all the miracles in this world. Now, more than ever, Chelsey hopes that she will fulfill her dream of becoming a medical professional so she can improve the lives of children like Mihaela, Maria, Raul—everyone we came to know and adore at the clinic.

I wish there was a better word for grateful. I am so blessed to have gone on this adventure, to have had this humbling and incredible experience. I am forever changed.