It is with great sadness that we tell you that the founder of Friends of Children in Romania has died. Increasingly frail during the past year, Mary had a stroke in March and was taken to hospital in Dorchester. The next day a second stroke followed – a severe one. She was cared for beautifully in hospital and while she struggled to get words out, she always greeted the nurses with a smile. Her body was badly damaged but her spirit as bright as ever.
Mary was a much-loved mother, grandmother and friend and this charity her outstanding achievement.
How did it all start?
After the fall of Ceaucescu, the president of Romania, in 1989, news broke of over-crowded orphanages with children living in appalling conditions. Mary never waited for someone else to sort out the problems she was passionate about and she never saw obstacles. On a cold, January day, at the age of 62, she set out for Bucharest, roping in her son’s ex-girlfriend and a photographer she had met on Salisbury train station.
Romania was in a very different state then to how it is today. Soldiers begged for cigarettes at the airport; there were no streetlights, long queues for bread and little food available – other than jars of pickled cucumbers. She soon learnt to pack her own lightbulbs for hotel rooms.
In Bucharest she sought out the notorious orphanages. Inside, the stench of urine was overpowering. Worse still, they were silent. No laughter – not even the sound of crying.
What to do? An overwhelming task, you might think. So she started with the basics. One of the most urgent requirements, she had seen, was for nappies. Back on a train in England, she asked the man sitting next to her: “I don’t suppose you run a nappy factory, do you?” He didn’t but when she told her tale he offered to help in a different way. He worked for the advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi. Publicity took off and fundraising went with a swing, including a concert at the Albert Hall. She addressed the audience. Next, she contacted Blue Peter, the children’s TV programme watched by half the country’s children. They decided to make her charity the focus of their Christmas appeal.
Her vision, and that adopted by Blue Peter, was to get children out of institutional orphanages and into family-sized houses, with carers taking on a parent-like role.
The appeal was hugely successful, raising more than £6 million. Huge sums of money, though, are not always a blessing. The charity had to appoint a professional, paid director to deal with the scale of the project and almost immediately, her vision started to unravel. At this point, many people might have been defeated. But not Mary. She simply got out of the organisation – and started again with a new charity – this one.
Friends of Children in Romania has given a home to more than thirty children over the years, mostly under the leadership of Betty Grigoras, who became her great friend as well as the best project manager she could have hoped for.
Mary visited Harja regularly, three or four times a year when she was younger, but still twice every year until her final visit last year, when the charity celebrated its 25th anniversary. She always took presents for the children – fun things, such as fancy wigs or hats, jewellery given to her by one of the market stall holders in her local town, posters of fast cars and pop stars – whatever she thought they would like.
She baked with them, joined them for walks in the beautiful fields around Harja and played in the snow along with them during her winter visits.
Throughout, she was always involved in decisions over the welfare of the children, talking to Betty and before her, Penny Munro, several times a week. She also corresponded with funders, produced the newsletter and was constantly on the look-out for new people to support the charity.
Mary will be much missed but the charity will continue.