Mariah Imlay, a junior majoring in university studies, sat in a white crib, rubbing the belly of a one-eyed Roma baby named Beatrice when she felt something small grab at her leg. She jumped and her braid whipped around as she looked back to see another baby had reached her small arm through the bars to get a small fistful of Imlay’s light blue scrubs.
Imlay immediately crawled out of Beatrice’s crib to inspect the two-month-old culprit who grabbed her attention. Big blue eyes and a toothless grin greeted her as the happy baby wiggled on top of Winnie the Pooh sheets. Imlay said she instantly fell in love with Alexandra that day.
If Alexandra was fed too quickly, she threw it all back up, so a feeding tube had been inserted through her freckled nose.
“She would stare up and me and whimper so I made it my goal to get her to not throw up and to keep food down,” said Imlay. “I would prop her up in a seat and she would be stable enough to keep it down because she couldn’t wiggle around, which she would do when she threw up.”
Imlay and nine other volunteers from the International Language Program walked a mile to the orphanage every day. Each child had a disability, either physical or mental. The volunteers spent 15-20 minutes a day with each child, either holding them, playing with them or working with them on their disabilities.
Imlay said it is not common for kids at the orphanage to get adopted due to their disabilities. There was one girl named Maria who was in the process of getting adopted, but the family immediately stopped the adoption when results came back that showed she tested high in some cognitive delays.
“It killed me that someone would do that to a baby that would smile every time you kissed her and always giggled,” Imlay said. “It was like someone picking out a purebred puppy.
Imlay said many of the babies at the orphanage were found in abandoned houses or the moms would give them up because they did not want to deal with their mental disabilities. They would grow up in the orphanage and most of the attention they would get were from the ILP volunteers.
ILP is a volunteer-based program that sends participants to their choice of 10 different countries for four months to teach English, according to ilp.org. Romania is the only country where the volunteers do not teach English, but instead assist in an orphanage. Volunteers live among the natives either with a host family or in an apartment, ensuring opportunities to embrace their culture.
Steve Brayton is one of the founders of ILP. He said it began as a study abroad/internship program at BYU but when it was cut as a study abroad program, he and a few other students turned it into a non-profit service abroad program.
“ It’s always my hope and prayer that when people volunteer with ILP, that it will not only be a blessing for them during their four months of service, but also that their semester will continue to serve and to bless them for the rest of their lives,” said Brayton.
Volunteers are given vacation time to spend traveling around the country or places outside the country they are teaching in. Imlay said her group was able to travel anywhere within the European countries. Her group traveled to Budapest, Venice, Rome, Athens and Santorini.
Imlay is still in contact with the people in her group and says she will always have a piece of Romania in her heart.
“[ILP] really helped me get out of my mind and out of my comfort zone, embrace different cultures and see how much personal interaction and service really matters,” Imlay said.