My volunteer experience in Romania has been amazing; I’m halfway through my 3 months here and am already making plans to return next year. Brasov is a great place to be based. The flat I’m in is lovely and only 5 minutes walk from the town centre. Our rep is called Razvan and he is friendly, funny and approachable. He speaks excellent English and looks after us very well.

I’m involved in 2 very different placements. I volunteer at a children’s orphanage 2 days a week and at a bear sanctuary for 3 days a week. At the orphanage I work at the children are aged between 12 months and 16 years and are all severely physically and mentally disabled. It can be distressing at times but also a joy to see a child respond to something you do or to a toy you’ve brought in for them. I brought a little hand-held keyboard in for one child and he loved it so much he wore the batteries out within hours! I take as many children as possible to the playroom with the physiotherapist, who is marvelous and very dedicated to the children. I play with the children, give cuddles and play music for them. All of the children can communicate on some level – a smile, a particular noise, a clap and it is so rewarding to have this interaction with them. You don’t need experience, just compassion, patience and a lot of love to give.

My other placement is at a bear sanctuary in Zarnesti which is a 25 minute drive from Brasov. It is set in beautiful countryside overlooked by mountains and is a wonderful, tranquil place to work. There are horses and donkeys in the fields, sanctuary dogs running around and the occasional Romanian shepherd wandering by with his flock. I work with Laci, the manager, his wife Emi and her Aunty Zita. They live in Brasov so I travel there and back with them. They are very friendly and have a great sense of humour and even though Laci is the only one who can speak English we can all communicate and they are good company.

In the morning we go to one of the supermarkets who donate food for the bears and load the van. We then go to the sanctuary where I help Zita prepare the food for the bears. At the moment we are trying to fatten up the bears for winter so we empty endless tons of milk and yoghurt into buckets then add bread – sounds disgusting but the bears love it. We work outside and I’m always gazing at the breathtaking views and feel so lucky to be here. Emi and Zita are fantastic cooks and make a wonderful lunch and we all eat together outside (there is a cabin to work and eat in during the colder months). They make a lot of traditional food at home to bring to the sanctuary and it’s always fresh and delicious.

In the afternoon I help with feeding the bears so we drive to the enclosures. The sanctuary now holds almost 30 bears that are currently being rehabilitated after being saved from lives of misery in circuses or as tourist attractions in tiny cages. It is fantastic and very moving to see these beautiful animals back in the wild living happy lives in a natural environment. At the sanctuary you have to be prepared to do anything to help out.

There are currently 7 bears in quarantine, my favourite is an 8 year old black bear called Max who was blinded as a cub to keep him docile by his owner. He is beautiful and responds when you call his name. Due to his blindness, after quarantine he will be released into a smaller enclosure on his own. I’ve been filmed collecting acorns for the bears by Animal Planet who have been filming here for 3 weeks and I watched the castration of a new bear along with numerous Romanian TV crews. The bear had been rescued from a monastery and it was a big news story in Romania.

The sanctuary is still in its infancy – the bear hospital is under construction then the education centre can be built. In a couple of years it will be the biggest bear sanctuary and research centre in Europe. I feel very honoured to be here and to work with people like Laci, Emi and Zita and to be part of something that is so important to ensure the ongoing protection of bears.
I am really enjoying myself here and don’t want to go home! Romania has had a terrible history but the country has some of the warmest and friendliest people I’ve ever met. My advice is to come here with an open mind and an open heart and you will have the experience of a lifetime.

Written by Anna McDermott

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