A missions trip to Eastern Europe turned out bittersweet.
A handful of local women, along with the Rev. Scott Manganella, director of Precious Life of Blair County, traveled to Romania in February to care for babies abandoned by parents who are too poor to care for them.
For two weeks, the local volunteers fed, cleaned, rocked and cared for the babies at a hospital in Oradea as if they were their own. Then, it was time to leave.
(Courtesy photo) Members of the local team who went to Romania to care for babies are (from left) front: Lindsay Salyards, Hannah Holton and Leslie Salyards; and back: Diane Clippinger, Marilyn Krug, Gail Keller, the Rev. Scott Manganella and Janice Cook.
The nurturers missed their families, but couldn't shake the nagging feeling that they needed to stay.
"At first you go over there and you really want to make a difference in the babies' lives. You soon realize you have to go home, and you start to get a little upset about that," said Janice Cook, who has helped on two mission trips to Romania.
"We were sad, we couldn't do more," she said.
Leaving was the hardest part for Leslie Salyards, 19, of Altoona.
"Knowing the end of the trip was coming soon, that hurt. I want to go back very, very badly," she said.
Salyards said she made the trip because she wanted to do something worthwhile while taking a year off from school. So, she joined Manganella and the team, which included her older sister Lindsay on the trip.
"I just wanted to make a difference," Leslie said.
She admitted her parents were concerned about their daughters traveling to a foreign country but gave them the go-ahead.
"They're supportive of everything we do, and my aunt went on the trip before and told us how great it was," Leslie said. "It really did prove to change my life. It was awesome."
The poor conditions at the hospital and the abandoned babies influenced Leslie's perspective.
"The walls were dilapidated. The floors were dirty. There was broken tile," she said.
"I look at life differently now. There were babies with deformities, and we complain about the smallest things here. I really try to keep my attitude up."
Manganella, who has made five trips to Romania, plans to take a group of volunteers to Oradea at least once a year.
It was on his first visit in 2005 when Manganella fell in love with the impoverished country.
"There's a pastor there who told me 'Once you come to Romania, you will always leave a part of your heart,'" Manganella said. "We've just fallen in love with the country and the people."
Precious Life, a pregnancy care ministry, began helping babies in Romania after being contacted by My Brother's Keeper.
My Brother's Keeper is a 20-year-old nonprofit organization based in Roxbury,?Pa., that helps Christians in Romania.
It began after the Communist Eastern Bloc fell in 1989 and became a legal entity in Romania in 1993. It's original mission was to distribute Bibles. It has expanded its role to include orphanage work, radio broadcasts, youth summer camps and supporting women with unwanted pregnancies, according to its Web site.
Initially, My Brother's Keeper also helped families adopt abandoned Romanian children.
But when the Romanian government outlawed international adoption, My Brother's Keeper came up with another way to help.
"We cannot adopt any children. So, that was the point that the concept of the pregnancy center/family life organization developed," said Luke Holtry, director of My Brother's Keeper.
"We began to ask the Lord how we could do that, where we could start it. It wasn't until 2005 when we actually opened up a center for education on abortion and family issues."
About that time, Precious Life began providing financial donations.
"We wanted to find a partner to help with the pregnancy ministry center," Holtry said. "We work back and forth in the spirit of cooperation."
Since My Brother's Keeper and Precious Life became involved, a crisis pregnancy center was built in Oradea, an abstinence program was developed for 22 of the 24 high schools and ministries have started in the children's hospital and the orphanage.
"It's what God put before us. It's an open door. It's growing," Manganella said.
Manganella hopes to take a group of women every year to help with the babies in the hospital and with Roma or "gypsy children" in a neighboring village.
His long-term goals include taking a group of men to Oradea to build a playground and church.
"In one of the villages, the kids have absolutely nothing," Manganella said.
On this trip, the women helped in a day care in a village where they gave the children some much-needed attention.
"We'd play with the gypsy kids. It's fun playing with kids when you can't speak the same language," said Cook, who learned of the mission trip through Carl Wolfe, pastor at Buckhorn Bible Church.
She and her fellow travelers continue to pray for the babies and children.
"You realize you have to rely on God to take care of the babies. We're continuing to help through our prayers," Cook said.
Cook hopes to make a third trip to Romania.
"It was a lot of mixed emotions, but I'm just glad we can help."