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She finds 'children to love' in Romanian orphanages

The choice was Christmas in a comfortable Pierce County home, surrounded by her family, or spending time with orphans thousands of miles away.

Kristina Harsdorf chose the orphans.

By the time her family celebrates the holiday in Wisconsin, she will be baking Christmas cookies with young Romanians at her apartment.

Harsdorf, who signed for a yearlong internship with Children to Love International, is part of a team working with children in eight orphanages in Bucharest, a city of two million in southern Romania.

She hadn't planned to return to Wisconsin during the year but came back last week for her older brother Jonathan's wedding. She left Monday afternoon for the 16-hour flight back to Bucharest, where she has been living for over five months.

Kristina, now 25, is a River Falls High School graduate. She attended a yearlong course at Covenant Bible School in Colorado before enrolling at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she earned a degree in communications with minors in sociology and foreign studies.

'A defining moment'

"It was something that was always in my heart even when I was in fourth grade," said Harsdorf of her CTL work. The children in her church class were assigned a devotional: "What do you think God wants you to do when you grow up?"

"To me that was a defining moment," said Harsdorf. It's also a question she pondered often.

She learned about Children to Love, a California-based ministry that reaches out to orphans in Romania and India, at a mission conference in 2003.

Her work in the orphanages involves teaching children English, helping them with homework and simply spending time with them. Each institution houses about 100 children and teens.

One orphanage is devoted to children with physical and mental disabilities.

"The needs there are even greater," said Harsdorf, who pitches in to change diapers, feed, hold and play with children and infants.

In the late 1980s Americans were stunned by reports of conditions in Romanian orphanages. An estimated 100,000 Romanian children were institutionalized, many as a result of the policies of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who required women to have five children by the age of 45 before the state would allow them birth control.

While enforcing the child requirement laws, Ceausescu also exported Romania's food to pay off the national debt, leaving families with unwanted children they couldn't feed.

Following a rebellion, Ceausescu was overthrown, tried and executed.

Today, said Harsdorf, the Romanian orphanages she has seen are clean and well run. But the children, who often live 15 to a dorm-style room, need more personal attention than staff can provide.

"They still need someone there nurturing them. So I get to do that," said Harsdorf. "I wish I could clone myself sometimes."

She also works with therapy, helping children to communicate by using pictures and rewards to teach them words and sentences.

"It's really important to the children in the orphanages to get a good education," said Harsdorf. While young people can live in an orphanage until age 26, they need to learn to provide for themselves.

"Most of them, their parents couldn't take care of them," said Harsdorf, explaining that many of the children she works with aren't really orphans.

One little boy, David, has a twin sister who lives with their parents. She was born without birth defects. He has multiple physical and mental handicaps.

"You know that if they were in a solid family, they'd do so much better," said Harsdorf. She said that because she grew up in a loving home, she feels called to help children who don't have that advantage.

Finding themselves

She has taken a group of six teenage girls under her wing.

"They have a hard time knowing who they are," said Harsdorf, noting that they face the same questions all teen girls face but without the guidance of devoted parents.

She said the girls are curious about her life and the fact that she isn't married or dating anyone now.

Her answer is "I'm waiting for that right person," said Harsdorf. "That always leads into other conversations."

During those talks she explains her values and the importance of her church in her life.

She teaches the older girls to cook, to bake desserts, to make pizza and other life skills. She also invites them to accompany her to church, either a Baptist church, where services are conducted in Romanian, or to an international Evangelical church that offers translations in English.

Among her new friends is 19-year-old Oana.

"It amazes me all the things she's had to endure," said Harsdorf. "She's a strong girl who has a good head on her shoulders."

Oana, who has a 14-year-old sister, has lived in an orphanage since early childhood because her mother couldn't support her.

Harsdorf said Oana, who will thrive with a little help, plans to finish high school, go to college and eventually work with children.

Harsdorf speaks a little Romanian. She soon learned how little.

"When I first arrived, I could only ask them what their name was and how old they were," she said. But most all the orphanage staff members speak English and help with translations.

For some things, no translation is needed, said Harsdorf. "You can just jump in and start helping out."

She is working as an unpaid intern and depends on family, friends and her church, First Covenant Church of River Falls, to provide the $1,700 a month she needs to pay apartment rent, buy materials and cover travel and other expenses.

Harsdorf isn't sure what she will do once her year commitment is over. She said she would like to stay in Romania for up to five years but also thinks of starting her own family.

She admitted that her parents, Jim and Lanette Harsdorf of Beldenville, have worried about her living in a huge city so far away.

"They had a hard time letting me go, but they raised me to be independent."

Kristina, who is the niece of state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, has two brothers and a sister: Jonathan, Laura and Justin.

For more information about Children to Love International, go to the Web site,

Reach Judy Wiff at and at 426-1049.