Heart's Command

updated 11/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

They emerge bleary-eyed from the blackness of the manhole into the sharp noonday light, filthy and carrying the stench of the underground with them. Rubbing their eyes with dirty hands, they survey the garbage-filled streetscape. These are not prisoners of war or even shell-shocked refugees. They are just a few of the up to 5,000 orphaned or abandoned children who now make their home in the streets of Romania. Some are as young as infants, and many bear thick scars on their arms and stomachs, vestiges of self-mutilation performed with glass, nails or pocketknives to numb the pain of hunger and a hopeless existence. "I've always felt for those on the fringe, but I have never seen children with nothing," says Susan Booth. "They have no resources whatsoever. Nobody to care for them. The deprivation is absolutely amazing."

Eight years ago, Booth, 48, a railroad conductor from blue-collar West Haven, Conn., saw a segment on ABC's 20/20 about the plight of children in Romania's overflowing orphanages. "It had such an impact on me that I started looking at my life in a different way," she says. Then working as an instructor for the Metro-North Railroad, she enrolled in graduate school to prepare for a career in social work. Now she has founded Archway (Abandoned Romanian CHildren), a fledgling charity meant to bring much-needed food and medical attention to children in this troubled Eastern European country. "People in America have soup kitchens, homeless shelters, something," says Booth. "In Romania there's nothing."

Although a few underfunded groups are at work in the country helping its street children, they are overwhelmed by the brutal legacy of the late Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu's Communist regime. Once coerced into having at least four children by a government intent on strengthening the economy, many Romanian parents, unable to care for their children, simply deposited them into state-sponsored orphanages. Today most of the children on Romania's streets are runaways or graduates of those institutions or else have fled from destitute home lives. "Poverty," says a spokesman for Romania's Child Protection Department, "is the main problem." That, and sometimes simple heartlessness. "The sheer violence toward the children is unbelievable," says Booth, recalling a group of shoeless 5-year-old boys she found digging through garbage and sleeping without blankets in a subway station. "I saw people taking swats at them when they were begging. They're sick, malnourished and hated."

It was in November 1997, frustrated after failing to find sponsorship for her cause among existing social service agencies in the U.S., that Booth made her first trip to Romania. There she met Steven Doyle, 28, a Dublin-born freelance photographer who has worked as a volunteer among the street children since coming to Bucharest in February 1995. "After meeting, we walked down the street, and all of a sudden the children came flying up to him because they know and trust him," says Booth. "I felt like I was in the company of the Pied Piper."

Like Booth, Doyle (the son of a taxi driver) decided to come to Romania after seeing a TV news program about the plight of its orphans. Within two weeks of his arrival, while volunteering in the pediatric AIDS wing of Bucharest's Victor Babes Hospital, he noticed groups of barefoot children begging in the Gara de Nord train station. "The snow was thick on the ground, and they were half-dressed," he remembers. But gaining their trust wasn't easy, at least at first. "They started pelting me with sticks and stones in the head, and I started to bleed," he recalls. "But when they saw me cry, they realized I wasn't there to hurt them."

Within months, Doyle had developed an informal street ministry, which stands to benefit from his partnership with Booth. Working as a team—she, in America, obtaining supplies and recruiting U.S. volunteers; he, in Romania, supervising the distribution of clothes, food and medicine and, when possible, shelter—they mean to bring hope to children who have none. Meeting her was "totally unexpected," says Doyle. "But she is someone after my own heart. She has the same dreams." Adds Booth: "We're a good balance. Steven's more charismatic and has more experience, but I'm the practical one."

The hardship Booth has witnessed in her two trips to Bucharest within the past year is a far cry from the childhood she knew growing up in Connecticut, the oldest of four children of a tool-and-die engineer father and a mother who worked in a supermarket bake shop. When Susan was 20, her father died of a heart attack, and she helped raise three younger siblings, then 18, 15 and 10. Says sister Karen, 42, a teacher who lives in North Branford, Conn.: "She's always been the caretaker."

And not just of her family. She has long been a volunteer at local homeless shelters and food pantries and typically spends her Thanksgivings dishing up hot turkey to the poor. "I've always liked to do that," she says. "I'm not the kind of person who likes to lie on a beach somewhere."

After graduating from Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven in 1972, she taught English at West Haven High School and managed a restaurant at night. After learning about job openings at Con-rail (now Metro-North), she landed a position there in 1978. In 1990 she saw the 20/20 program that changed her life. Volunteering for trips to Slovakia in 1991 and 1992 to teach English for a nonprofit group called Education for Democracy "got me close, but I was still not in Romania," she says. It also made her realize that "the best way to make myself useful over there was to go back to school and get a master's in social work."

The following year, Booth took a 25 percent pay cut to work as a night-shift conductor, freeing her days for classes at SCSU and more volunteer work. "Susan isn't simply a good-hearted, well-meaning volunteer," says Susan Gardner, director of social work at the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, where Booth interned. "She was prepared to go the extra nine yards."

Today, when not working the 2 p.m.-to-10 p.m. shift on commuter trains running between Connecticut and New York City, Booth spends her days at home managing Archway, which last summer received the support of Dragos Constantinescu, son of Romania's current president. More recently, Booth, who plans to take a leave of absence from her job early next year to devote herself full-time to Archway, has been negotiating with a doctor at Yale-New Haven Hospital to obtain used medical equipment for the Romanian children. She is also receiving donations of woolen hats knitted by a group of women in Connecticut. Booth's immediate goals include a food delivery van and an office and children's shelter in Bucharest, as well as attracting volunteers willing to give up vacation time to work with her in Connecticut and with Doyle in Romania. "I want to make Archway the kind of organization," she says, "where we can tell people, 'You've got six weeks? We'd love you to come and help us.' "

Until then, Booth's thoughts, no matter the geographic distance, are never far from Romania or from children like 18-year-old Costel, an unemployed orphan who lost his leg in an accident at the age of 6 and now hauls himself on crutches through the streets of Bucharest. When he was asked if he believes in God, he answered that he does. Every night before he goes to sleep in the sewers, Costel says, "I speak to Him: 'Help me. Help me.' "

Susan Schindehette
Nina Biddle in Bucharest and Eve Heyn in West Haven

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