Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:
March 2, 2011 — She was only 17 when she first met the Roma children living in a dank orphanage, neglected and abused. Their dark eyes and vacant stares broke Clare Vierbuchen's heart, and she couldn't forget what she saw on that high school community service trip.
Now more than a decade later, the children are the first thing on her mind every morning when she wakes up. More often than not, the morning finds her on the phone with several of them, checking to make sure they are safe and keeping up with their schoolwork, before she, herself, heads to school.
Vierbuchen currently lives in Charlottesville, where she is a graduate student in the clinical psychology program at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. At the same time, she runs both a group home and an after-school community center for children in the northern Romania town of Bistrita.
Vierbuchen, whose family now lives in Houston, was living in London when the American School took her class to visit Romania's notoriously overpopulated orphanages. Conditions are even worse in areas where the ethnic Roma populations live, the so-called "gypsies" who are despised and discriminated against by their country.
"Conditions were horrible," she said. "I knew things like that existed, but I had never had to look at them before. I was so upset by what I saw there."
She visited the orphanage again during subsequent summers, but it wasn't enough. "We were just doing damage control at the orphanage. We couldn't really save them that way," Vierbuchen said. While she was a junior at Princeton University, she took matters into her own hands. She and some friends set up a nonprofit organization called Open Doors Romania.
With the money she raised, she opened a group home called Casa Sperantei, or "House of Hope." She rescued five children from the state orphanage, hired carefully selected foster parents to care for them, and gave them a chance for a normal life.
Still not satisfied, Vierbuchen dreamed of doing more. "Many of the families in these poor areas are crowded into old, dirty, one-room apartments with no running water," she wrote on the Open Doors Romania website. "Parents tend to be poorly educated and have little opportunity of employment, while their children are left chiefly to their own devices. In this environment, children often fail to attend school regularly and almost never complete their homework."
Her idea was to open a community center where children could spend time after school, eat a nutritious meal, get clean clothes and school supplies, take showers and get help with their homework. "I planned for it all the time," she said. "I carried around a notebook and wrote down ideas when they came to me."
After Princeton she spent two years in Romania bringing her ideas to fruition – largely on her own. "The Roma people are viewed as a waste of time over there," Vierbuchen said. "I don't know how many people have told me that I'm wasting my time."
She knows better, though. She says her center helps kids get somewhere in life, so they don't repeat the cycle of neglect and abandonment. Vierbuchen is especially proud of one boy she began supporting when he was in fourth grade, who is now in a college preparatory high school.
"My goal is to get kids in college," she said. "Even if we can save two or three, it's a big deal to me."
In 2007, Vierbuchen left Romania to attend the Curry School, where she found the clinical psychology program she was looking for – one with a children-and-families focus and ample opportunities for hands-on experience. She finished her master's degree and determinedly continued on to the doctoral program.
"The program has given me a new way of thinking about these kids and a better way of helping them," she explained. She has used her new knowledge to better train her staff, which includes both paid and volunteer workers.
Not surprisingly, her dissertation research examines the resources and stressors impacting Roma families in Romania. She plans to defend her dissertation this spring and then complete a yearlong internship required by the program.
The children are never far from her thoughts, though. She makes the 12-hour flight to Romania every chance she gets – summer break, Thanksgiving, winter break and again over spring break. She acknowledges that her lifestyle can be very stressful, even overwhelming.
"At times, I find it difficult to balance it all with life here, running things over there, talking to kids, fundraising, but it's really worth it to me," Vierbuchen said.
Her thoughts then turned to a 9-year-old Roma boy she has worked with. His abusive mother prefers to keep him and his brother at home, but he regularly argues with her to get his little brother dressed for school.
"The kids are so great, so impressive. They are dealing with so much," she explained. "I look up to them. I love working with them."