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AIDS + Starcross

Starcross in Romania

As Brother Toby was reticent to even go to the nearest city, we were stunned one morning when he announced he thought he should go to Romania. Even he was shocked a few days later when ABC-TV asked to come with him!

In December 1989 the communist regime was violently overthrown in Romania. Immediately, unbelievable stories came out. At least 120,000 abandoned children were living in sub-human conditions, most of them had AIDS because of the practice of reusing needles for injections. Shortly afterwards, Toby went over accompanied by veteran journalists Robin Weiner (a producer), Alex & Franci Bruckner (camera and sound.) None of them were prepared for the horror they discovered and started communicating to the world. Four segments on PrimeTime Live filming Brother Toby’s activities revealed that these children were left to die from starvation and neglect. Each TV presentation averaged 17 million viewers. This helped turn the spotlight on the situation.

Brother Toby in RomaniaOn January 17, 1991 we were able to open our House of Hope, "CASA SPERANTA", in Constanta. What happened next is perhaps best described by the courageous Dr. Rodica Matusa in her book Ingerii Nimanui (No One's Angels) (Compania: Bucharest, 2007). Dr. Matusa was at the Constanta Contagious Disease Hospital. The following is from her chapter "Brother Toby" and translated by Marolen Mullinax:

"We were overwhelmed by the fact that we had hundreds of abandoned children (in our hospital ward). We were only a few doctors, nurses and we had to treat them medically and act like their parents. We had to furnish a home, food, and to provide legal documents necessary in Romania for identification purposes.

"The first person who realized that these children must be taken out of the hospital was Brother Toby. When I later saw their home in the mountains of California, I thought I must be dreaming. They lived in hills where Christmas trees grew. They lived by the fruits of their labors. All, except for Toby, lived in a house made of wood. Toby lived in a trailer house with wheels. The children were cared for in the family. There was no fear of the disease or resistance on the part of the adults. The children’s birth mothers died of AIDS, but with this family they had mothers and a father. The children lived as though they were natural brothers and sister.

"I was so happy to see Americans living such a natural and simple life. I was most impressed by their chapel - it was a real chapel with a bell and steeple and housed in their cow barn!!

"Some months after the Revolution, in 1990, Brother Toby came to Constanta. He had heard that there were many children sick with AIDS in our city. When he saw our section of the hospital and how many abandoned children there were, he asked for a place which could be arranged to care for some of these children. He was given a building which he transformed into six small apartments. Each contained a bedroom for five children; near them was a small sleeping room for a 'mama', a living room where the children would eat their meals. Even if the children were still using a bottle they were put at the table to eat. They were not left to eat in their beds as we at the hospital had done. Their beds were cribs, but made of wood, not the old iron beds from the hospital. In each apartment lived five small children. They ate and slept together with their 'mama'. Even if their food was prepared in a central kitchen, when they sat at their table every family appeared different. The apartments had been arranged according to the needs of the individual family and the taste of the mamas. It was like looking at real families. And the children, regardless of how small they were, began to feel that they had come home.

AIDS children in Romania.

"Six American volunteers left their homes and families and came to take the first thirty children from the hospital and care for them at Casa Speranta. This was the first family-style home (for abandoned children) in Romania. It was a home for these children; children who no one wanted. Brother Toby chose the children and asked for their transfer to Casa Speranta. I begged him to change his mind and take other children because I was afraid that they would immediately die out of the hospital. He refused and it was impossible for me to disrespect the wishes of a benefactor. So in January 1991, Casa Speranta began to function with six families.

"Despite the predictions of everyone, including all the specialists, that the children would die, it was more than a year and a half before the first child from Casa Speranta breathed his last breath. At that time there were no specific HIV/AIDS drugs. All that they did was completely change the way that the children were cared for. The children were not treated like sick orphans, but instead like boys and girls who had a mama, and normal food. They were allowed to live as was normal for their age - like every child in a family, instead of in a hospital.

"Living near these children made me realize that AIDS is not synonymous with death. These children did not have to live without hope."

Copyright © 2007 Compania. All rights reserved.

Until 1994, Starcross directed the daily operations at Casa Speranta. Either Marti, Julie, or Toby would be there every other month. Living there was Marolen Mullinax, a Texan with a lot of grit and heart who took over as CEO in 1994. Susan Belfiore, from New Jersey, planned to stay for a few months and stayed for two years. Rebecca Ault, who taught all the Starcross children, set up and looked after the first Montessori school in Eastern Romania. Romanians were trained to replace American volunteers and in time Casa Speranta developed its own autonomous board of directors and took on the responsibility of administration and financing. In 1997 we were able to cease our financial support. Casa Speranta became a model for home-care of children with AIDS used by several international and Romanian organizations. In 1999 Marolen turned over her position to a Romanian director and now serves as president of the board. For up to the minute information Marolen can be contacted at marolen@aol.com.

Today, the children at Casa Speranta are growing into their teens and living normal lives thanks to antiretroviral and other medicine supplied by friends of Casa Sperantia. Four of the original children, however, came back with Susan Belfiore (after a long legal struggle) when it was apparent the bond between them was too strong to break. They are now very active American teens.

It was very special moment for Brother Toby when Lore Dana, the first child he found in the Conatanta hospital ward and near death, was brought by her mother Susan to Starcross in 1993. He said he felt like a circle was complete. Susan and Bill and the Belfiore kids are an important part of our extended family.

Brother Toby with Lore Dana.

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