Illustration by Dongyun Lee
M y story of service begins three generations ago in Romania, when my great-granddad fought in a revolution. He fought for the rights of the people, and for that, he was imprisoned, beaten, and sent home to die.
My granddad was orphaned at an early age but was fortunate to inherit a small plot of land. He used the revenue from that land to support himself through college, and he earned a PhD in economics.
My granddad became a well-respected banker and a firm believer in property, the benefits of having land, and the obligation to do something for the people. He started a charity – a bank that gave out microloans, probably one of the first of its kind. (This was in the 1940s, long before microcredit became popular in international development circles.) The program was successful because the tiny rural village where he lived, Fratoştiţa, is a place where everybody knows everybody. If you didn’t repay a loan, everyone would know you didn’t and would know why. That’s why microlending is so successful in rural areas – not because people are poor and have fewer opportunities, but because of the circle of honesty these communities cultivate.
After World War II, my granddad’s good work came to an end. Because of his status as a pillar of the community, the Communists targeted him as an enemy of the people. He and his family were forced to leave their farm. They were strip-searched and sent to the city with nothing but the clothes they wore. The Communists took everything from them, including my granddad’s job, and he died shortly after.
I never knew of his story until my family escaped to the United States in the 1990s. Even then, I didn’t have a clear picture of his work until 2004, when my wife, Alma, and I left California to visit Fratoştiţa for the first time. The poverty was overwhelming. I remember looking around and seeing people sitting on the porch doing nothing, expecting nothing, because they had nothing. Some didn’t have shoes, or they wore their shoes only once a week to go to church or City Hall. Their children’s feet were bare too.
I spoke with the villagers. I told them my granddad’s name, and they recognized it instantly. “This bridge was built by him,” they told me, ushering me around. “This is his community center.” “This is the library he built.” I was shocked. The street that runs through the center of town even bears his name.
In addition to a history lesson, Alma and I had come to Romania looking for an orphanage to support. In 2003, the year we married, we started a nonprofit organization for children – a dream of ours since our first date. Although we live in California and work in the information technology industry, we grew up in places where poverty and inequity were part of everyday life. Alma is from Mexico, and I’m from Romania. Though I was fortunate to grow up in the capital, Bucharest, I recall passing an orphanage each day on my way to rugby practice, thinking, “Someday you have to do something for these kids.”
During our tour of my granddad’s village, we met a school principal who told us about a list of improvements she was trying to finance. Alma and I immediately agreed that this was the cause we were seeking. I returned to Bucharest to ask about ways to finance the improvements, and several financiers told me, “Don’t build there. Those people are lazy. They’re undeserving.” Many of the projects were expensive, and progress in lining up financing was slow. Finally, I approached a friend of mine to ask for a loan. I’d barely breathed a word before he placed $3,000 on the table and said, “Take it. It’s yours. Just do what you need to do.” That was the catalyst. He not only had faith in me, he had faith in the project and in the community, a community he’d never heard of before.
The first projects were to build a heating system and a computer lab for a school. The largest undertaking was to rebuild a school in its entirety. I put my whole 401(k) into that project, and it was the best investment of my life. The entire community pulled together. They worked 12 hours a day for what little money we could pay them. We didn’t have many tools, particularly because it was such a remote area, we couldn’t bring much equipment there. The roads were so bad, every time it rained, we had to stop work. In the end, we completed the school, and everyone in the village – children, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents – joined in the schoolyard to cut the ribbon.
Back then, I didn’t know much about Rotary, but as it turned out, many of the people who helped me along the way were Rotarians. In 2007, when Romania became part of the European Union, these Rotarians worked to find ways to obtain EU development funds for my projects. During that time, I left a six-figure job in the United States and moved to Romania for six months to devote my full energies to the task. My wife had taken a job in the Netherlands, and I spent time traveling back and forth, trying to find support for our charity. The EU funding process was complex. It was extremely difficult to get the money to the people who needed it most, particularly in the rural areas. I was disappointed and dismayed, though I had made many important friends, many of them Rotarians, and had an exceptional network.
When my wife and I returned to California, a friend introduced me to Kimberly DeBroux, of the Rotary Club of Costa Mesa, who is probably the most enthusiastic Rotarian I’ve ever met. We talked for maybe 10 minutes, and she said, “My club is meeting next Wednesday. Why don’t you come?” That was all it took. I joined and told the other members about my work. They immediately made me the club’s international service director. We were a perfect match: They were looking for someone to help the club get involved as an international Matching Grant sponsor, and I was looking for a way to continue the great work my wife and I had started.
Our club partnered with the Rotary Club of Craiova; I’d met members of the club in Romania. In two years, we have launched many projects together. Three were free dental screenings – and, of course, we chose the children of Fratoştiţa to participate in the first. For that first screening, we only had two dentists: a friend of mine from the Netherlands and another from Romania. They saw about 200 children over the course of two days. During that time, we took the children to the park. We gave them coloring books and toothbrushes. I’d never seen a child so happy to have a toothbrush before, let alone to see the dentist. They wore their best clothes and carried flowers; they played and laughed. One of the dentists said, “It’s unbelievable. They’re so happy!” The scene must have made an impression on him because he joined Rotary too.
As much as the children loved the experience, though, the project made the greatest impression on the parents. They were thankful to see professionals come from far away just to look at their children’s teeth, and many wanted screenings themselves. I’ll never forget the great-grandma who approached me with a wide grin and only about two teeth in her mouth, exclaiming, “When is it my turn?” The University of Craiova’s dentistry school heard about our work and was so impressed, it is expanding the program throughout the region and, with luck, nationwide.
Our efforts show that when you lend a hand and help the right people, they’re not only grateful, they experience the power of Rotary.
My Rotary service also has helped expand my focus to include peace work. Last year, the Costa Mesa club helped build 12 multimedia centers in rural areas of Romania. The purpose is to encourage children to communicate with one another and with children from nearby countries. Craiova Rotarians are helping us connect with clubs in Greece, Albania, Serbia, and Bulgaria to bring children throughout the Balkans together, online and in person. Once the children meet, once they know one another and see there’s no difference between them, we can start to build peace. After all, if everyone communicated in this way, there’d likely be no more conflict, no more war.
Everywhere I go, I see potential. I recall the images of the people sitting on the porches, no hope. All they needed was a catalyst. We were that catalyst. We left behind effervescence and opportunity. The way I see it – and this is what I tell new prospects for our club – if you have an idea and use Rotary’s platform of 1.2 million people, how could the idea not be successful? How could you not change lives? Your good idea could go all the way around the world.