Twenty eight brave Cookstown High School students are on their way to Romania to bring some much needed light into the lives of some of the European Union’s worst off.
The teenagers, who have all been working hard to raise funds to help those consigned to orphanages and institutions, will join a delegation of 18 from St Patrick’s Armagh on the cross community project.
Now in its 26th year, Cookstown High School has been taking part in the School Aid Romania project for 11 years with the help of IT teacher Mary Hogg.
In that time, pupils from the school have helped deliver thousands of bags of aid as well as £100k in donations to those most in need in villages just outside Romania’s second largest city - Rupina.
And for the first time this year, sixth formers Janine Ferry and Jordan Cooper will be going back a second time.
Janine, 19, and 17-year-old Jordan said their involvement in the project has really opened their eyes to the effects of corruption on the country’s weak.
“It was shocking,” explained Jordan, while Janine said: “I’m usually as hard as nails, I’d go out there and be like let’s get on with this and do whatever we are here to do.
“But it breaks my heart to see people the way they are being treated out there. People with a disability are just shunned by society and left. They are treated like animals.
“I knew it was going to be bad,” she added, “but unless you have been there you couldn’t possibly imagine it.”
Their teacher Mrs Hogg went on to explain, that on their week-long trip, the teenagers visit a number of orphanages, institutions, hospitals and schools in and around Rupina.
There they meet children and adults, who for whatever reason, ended up in such places. Some, she explained, are tied to beds and chairs, never get outside and rarely benefit from any human interaction.
“We went to the hospital and saw the babies that had been abandoned,” Mrs Hogg said. “Those babies will eventually go into an orphanage.”
“You are only allowed in for a half an hour,” Janine went on. “When you come in the smell of bleach just hits you - they put on this sort of front that it is clean.
“They take what you would describe as they best ones down, to be like ‘look these people are interacting’.”
But the group said they are not fooled, as their visiting time is so precise and “there’s only two rooms that they allow you to visit”.
And although heartbreaking, the youngsters said it’s worth it for those they help as “for that 20 minutes they were happier than they were the whole year”.
Through School Aid Romania they have also managed to save 30 young people from this fate by providing somewhere else for them to live.
What you can do to help
Pupils and teachers are leaving Cookstown High School for their journey to Romania on Saturday, February 13. With them they will take bags of donated clothes, toiletries, food and money.
If you would like to help the students make a difference to those in need in Romania, you can deliver anything you wish to donate to Cookstown High School up until they leave. Toiletries like soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes are needed, as well as warm outer clothing like coats, hats, scarves, gloves. Donations of money are also very welcome.