09/28/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
AT 16, ROMANIAN-BORN AURELIAN BECIUG (PRONOUNCED BAY-CHUK) was about to take a step, one of the first of his life. As a crowd of friends and doctors looked on last month, the teenager—whose bristling thatch of brown hair inspired the nickname Spike—placed his forearms on the bars of an aluminum walker. His legs fortified with braces, Spike steadied himself. Slowly he pushed one leg forward, then the other, and painstakingly crossed a cast room at the Cleveland Clinic before settling into his wheelchair. "This is marvelous," said a beaming Dr. Alan Gurd, the pediatric orthopedic surgeon who had operated on Spike's clubbed feet three months earlier. "His feet were in such horrendous positions before that all he could do was scoot along on his bottom. Now he's standing and walking. Still," adds Gurd, "the operation is small potatoes compared with efforts that brought Spike here."
Indeed, had it not been for an extraordinary campaign by 50 high school students in the Cleveland area, Spike might never have left the Romanian orphanage where he had been branded an "irrecoverable" by Romanian authorities. The students—who call themselves Cleveland Kids for Romanian Orphans—raised over $4,000 to bring Spike to the U.S. for free medical treatment. He arrived June 4, and 10 days later doctors at the Cleveland Clinic performed the delicate and complicated operation to reposition bones in his legs and fuse bones in his feet so that they would support his weight as he stood and walked. "I am grateful to be able to walk," said Spike through a translator, with a broad grin that displayed a missing front tooth. "This is really a happy experience for me."
Lately, Spike has had more than his newfound mobility to smile about. He has his own room in the home of Elisabeth Jacobs, temporarily his legal guardian, her doctor husband, Ernest, and their three children, Christopher, 9, Michael, 4, and Katrina, 2. "They lake good care of me," says Spike, who is learning English. "I like having children around. I listen when they talk. I pick out words."
Helping Elisabeth care for Spike is the dedicated group of Cleveland teens who do even thing from feeding him to pushing his wheelchair up the hill from the house to the ear when-ever he goes to the hospital. "It's important that we help Spike fulfill his dream of walking," says Jeff Smith, 17, a high school senior who drives 45 minutes three times a week to lend a hand in caring for him. "When the going gets rough. Spike laughs and cries at the same time. He inspires me."
Unknown to Spike at the time, the students began working to assist him in 1990. In October, Kimberly Conkol, then 16 and a student at Notre Dame Cathedral Latin School in Chardon, saw a tape of a TV special about Romania's 125,000 orphans, many of them handicapped, who had been warehoused in institutions during Nicolae Ceausescu's brutal regime. When Kim and Elisabeth, for whom Kim often baby-sat, decided that they wanted to do something to aid the orphans, Kim decided to organize her friends. Says Kim: "We thought we could do two things at the same time: help a Romanian child and involve high school students."
Kim and Elisabeth wrote to 83 high schools in the Cleveland area, inviting students to participate. Shortly afterward, an American college student who had been a volunteer in a Romanian orphanage and who had learned of the students' efforts told Elisabeth about Spike. He had been born with severely clubbed hands and feet—a condition whose treatment is usually started at birth in the U.S. Like many Romanian handicapped children, he had been sent to an orphanage as a youngster by parents who could not care for him. Unable to walk or use his hands to feed himself, he had taught himself to hold a pencil and to draw pictures of landscapes and animals. "The kids identified with him, recalls Elisabeth. "Spike was a teenager like them. They wanted him to come."
Working through students, a Romanian doctor and the Romanian government, Elisabeth and Kim secured permission from the orphanage and from Spike's parents, who live in the town of Galati, for his journey. The Cleveland Clinic agreed to underwrite his operations, and Kim and her team set about raising airfare for Spike and the American volunteer who escorted him to Cleveland. Over a 20-month period, they staged fundraisers, sold carnations on Saint Patrick's Day and washed cars. "It was nice to help someone," says Ann Stanton, 15, a sophomore at Regina High School. "You felt you could affect the lives of people half a world away. Meeting Spike was the culmination of our work."
That meeting took place at Cleveland's Hopkins International Airport last June, where Spike was met by 20 students with balloons, flowers and gifts. Perhaps more overwhelming to Spike was the Jacobses' home, where he encountered things he had never seen before: pictures on the walls, flush toilets, hot water, plentiful food and toys. "I like everything here," says Spike. "There is nothing I don't like. Not even spinach."
This Sept. 25, Spike is scheduled to undergo a final operation to reposition his right wrist so that he can eat by himself. In December he will return to Romania. The Jacobses are trying to arrange for him to live with a foster family in Bucharest, where he can attend school and study computers. "We all care what happens to him," says Elisabeth. "We don't want him to drop back into a dark hole somewhere. We want him to thrive."
GIOVANNA BREU in Cleveland