– What did Auntie Mia teach you?
– To be a good kid, to live. Many other things.
Auntie Mia, is a blond, blue-eyed woman with a soft, tender voice that fills the room with gentleness. To her 40 children, she is the best mother in the world.
Twenty years ago at the age of 43, Mia Scarlet and her husband took 6 street children into her home. Since then, she has helped raise 170 children. They all come from families where domestic violence has left deep scars.
Today, many of Mia’s children have graduated from university. Some have started their own foster homes. None of them have forgotten who saved them.
These children and their families are expanding the virtuous circle of goodness founded on the love of one woman: Mia.
One of them, a handsome little boy wearing a blue vest, hands Mia a letter:
“For the best mom in the world. I love you with all my little heart.”
Underneath her square lens, Mia’s eyes begin to water. “Look how nice his writing is…” she shows us the letter once we have settled in her office.
There is not a bare spot on the wall in Mia’s office. It is full of pictures of her and her husband, as well as paintings, article clippings or simple words that fill in the spaces between the children’s diplomas and trophies.
How did everything begin?
Mia sighs. She is not a stranger to the pain these children have experienced. She also endured a childhood ridden with domestic violence.
“I was one of these children, I lived a very hard life…a childhood without beautiful memories, just lot’s of suffering.”
Mia’s tone changes when a lively little girl in pigtails comes into the room, throws her arms around Mia’s neck and kisses her.
“This is love,” smiles Mia.
“God somehome carried me through turbulent waters so I could do what I do today.
I first tried to kill myself when I was 12 years old. There was so much pain all around me and I couldn’t bear it anymore. Now I work with children who have tried to commit suicide at 7 years old. I know what it means to get to this point of despair. Studying psychology has helped me understand the issues even better.
It is in my nature to help the poorest, the most vulnerable and the helpless. As as child, I had to defend my mother and my brother from the beatings they received. I’ve been fighting domestic violence since I can remember.“
And yet, it was not the childhood trauma that spurred Mia into action. It was the images she saw of Romanian orphanages in the 1990s. Images that she cannot forget even today.
In the early 1990’s, along the support of her husband, friends in Romania and in the United States, Mia decided to help the suffering children.
But her efforts would prove to be fruitless.
“The corruption in the country was so widespread that many of the supplies we were providing were not getting to the children. I have pictures of the children who would stare into our eyes with so much pain and make signs so that we’d understand that the food was not getting to them. They wanted us to give it to them directly, on the spot, so they could eat it right away.
I would go back the next day and realize that the children did not get to touch any of the things we had brought to them.”
Given that the government made it impossible to help the children in State custody, she set up the Mia’s Children Foundation, designed to help another category of very poor children. Mia shows us portraits of Joan and Darrell Castle, the two friends who, in 1998, helped her set up an American NGO to help children living in the streets.
“Joan and Darrell understood the suffering of these children, especially the Roma children who experience so much discrimination. One day while visiting them in the US, they said to me, “OK Mia, it is time do something for these children.”
After returning to Romania, I remember very clearly the day when a voice within asked me, “what are you doing for those around you?” The answer was right outside my front door. I could hear the street children outside the window.
These children were not considered abandoned, legally speaking, because they still had a living family member. However, these children were living as if they had been abandoned.
Many of them lived near the garbage dump or on the street. Even if they lived in a house, they were always very dirty, always hungry. They did not know how to play because no one took an interest in their games.
At that moment, I knew that my calling was right here on my own street.
Education and Encouragement
At the beginning, Mia was more like camp counsellor than a mother. She bought six bags of toys and then invited the children to learn how to play together outdoors in a meadow and open spaces between buildings. Mia would organize games from 9:00 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening.
“We taught the children how to be kind, to play together, to draw, and how to talk respectfully. We talked about the differences between kind behavior and hurtful behavior.”
As Mia began to learn about the difficult situations facing each child at home, she found the children asking a common question – “If our parents did not want is, why did they have us.”
“I realized that I could not answer that question. Instead, I tried to change the focus to how they could change their lives through education.
That’s why, when September 1st rolled around, I said to the children, ‘Look, let’s make a deal. I will buy you everything you need, notebooks, books, school clothes, school bags, and go with you to your first day of school. We’ll go together and enroll you in school. After school, we will do lessons together at our home.’
Many of the children did not want to leave our home in the evening, so we let the little ones sleep in our bed and I slept on the floor next to my husband.
Eventually so many kids were in the home, we began to rent apartments. We rented nine apartments that we could use to wash, de-lice and clean the children. Today, all of these children have gone to college and have a family of their own. They are children for whom the eyes of the mind have been opened”.
She stops recounting her story when a little blue-eyed boy walks briskly into the room.
– Mrs. Mia, can I go outside if I dress warmly enough?
– If you dress warmly, yes. (She turns to us). He had chickenpox. Be careful!
Then two other boys of the same height come to Mia with the same request, addressing her in a very polite manner.
She smiles at them sweetly. They give her a hug.
Just a few seconds later, a little girl with bangs approaches Mia and hands her a drawing.
“This is for you,” the little girl says.
Mia replies,“This is beautiful, let mommy give you a kiss. She’s a future ballerina. Her older brother is teaching her. We’re going to put on a show, right?”
The week after Mia’s husband died, the Zmaranda family promised Mia that they would make sure that she was not left alone and that all the children would have a roof over their heads.
The Zmaranda family provided the funds for the current 5 story home. It was built in just three months, a miracle in Romania. Mia says that money is just one part of the children’s needs. Simple words of encouragement can have a tremendous impact on them.
“If I see they have a fever and ask if anything is hurting, they will answer yes. When I ask why they did not tell me, they give me a blank stare. For them, suffering is normal. No one has ever asked them if something hurt them or not.”
Mia’s face lights up once again when another child appears in the room. It’s Matei, a tall and slim boy with curly hair and glasses.
“My talented dancer. What did you do today?”
“We visited six museums and tomorrow we’re going to the Botanical Garden. We’re going to do some of experiments with the biology teacher. And they will take us to a place where there are many butterflies.”
“Do you want to see him dancing?”
Within minutes we are participating in a contemporary dance show that Matei puts on for us together with two other children, Flori and Albert. Mia’s home has a special room where the choreographies and the theater performances are staged.
At the same moment, an elaborate preparation of Easter eggs is underway in another room.
Sitting at a long table full of books, colorful boxes and pencils, children of many ages complete their work under the watchful eyes of a Jesus Christ icon.
“To Respect the Rules, to Be Good, to Behave Well”
Serene, talkative, eager to meet us and to introduce themselves, Mia’s children finish each other’s sentences when you ask a question.
Their daily program does not differ from that of a small family.
“I color, paint eggs, clean up, help out in the kitchen and assist the little ones with their homework. So first I do my homework, after that I do activities and when I’m done, I study some more,” says Mona, who is in the seventh grade.
She and all of Mia’s children go to church on Fridays and Sundays and say a prayer after each meal and before bedtime.
– What did auntie Mia teach you?
– To respect the rules, to be kind, to behave well, to get along with each other,” says Lucian, who is carefully studying our voice recorder while speaking.
Lucian hands over the recording device to his friend: “Come on, little Cristi, it’s your turn.”
“Little Cristi” is, in fact, older than Lucian. He’s 12 years old and likes soccer.
– Do you have a favorite soccer player?
– Stanciu, Budescu, Ronaldo and Messi. And Nadelcu plays well too!
I want, I can and I must
In her relationship with the children, Mia Scarlat puts an emphasis on three verbs that she considers essential: I want, I can, I must.
For her, there is no such thing as a child without potential. So each of the 40 children work on growing their talents in one or more activities: singing, sports, theatre, painting, dancing or anything else they feel a desire to excel at.
All of these activities are listed on a well-organized chart.
“I perform psychological assessments on them, I observe them and take notes. Everyone has a unique intervention plan. In this way, I can make sure they get what they need.
This is what our education system should do,” explains Mia.
Keeping the house clean
Although she has too few people helping her, Mia does not complain.
She applies the Japanese system: each child contributes to cleaning, setting the table and cleaning it up. In addition, the older children take care of the younger ones.
In this way, explains Mia, each child learns “to value cleanliness and objects.”
“We do not have the financial means to hire people and sponsorships are on the decline,” she says.
As for volunteering, “it’s just a beautiful fairy tale,” says Mia with a touch of heartache.
“Many volunteers come a couple times and then they disappear. But I understand. Life is still hard here. People work a long day and worry about paying their own bills. Things need to be more settled before people have time to look around and see what they can do for each other.”
Our conversation is interrupted by Nicoleta, who is preparing to go to a rehearsal for her first concert with the Conservatory Choir.
Mom and daughter hug each other.
– I love you.
– And I love you!