Eleanor Gaskarth meets a woman who took up the plight of orphans as a challenge.
One evening back in 1991 Rita Trotman, three months away from starting a new job at Eton College, was sat in front of the television in her home on the Isles of Scilly. But unlike the usual comforting viewing numbness, the programme she fell to watching was to take her thousands of miles and have a monumental impact on the rest of her life.
It was an episode of Challenge Anneka in which the presenter was given the task of renovating an orphanage in Romania. The facility was home to 600 children living in appalling conditions. There was no sanitation or electricity and many of the children were seriously ill and emotionally and physically abused.
For mother-of-two Rita, it was unbearable. Within weeks she boarded a plane to the country to volunteer. She would visit the orphanage – a different one to the television show – countless times over the next 22 years and also achieve something remarkable, an independent life for three of the orphans with special needs.
In a book recounting her experiences, Sunlight Through the Shadows, Rita writes of that evening in 1991: "What many of us saw that night would reverberate around the world. I watched in horror as people saw, for the first time, the conditions within the camines [orphanages]. Anneka's bombshell exposure of the plight of those children was a pivotal moment in my life. It was like an itch I had to scratch and I couldn't get the images out of my mind… it was the small children with their huge eyes and skinny arms and legs that lingered. I couldn't turn my back on such cruelty and deprivation and my response to the programme was immediate."
After weeping throughout the show, Rita contacted its makers and expressed a desire to help. She was put in touch with a lady in Norwich who, with fellow employees from the city's Marks & Spencer, had been early responders and were busy organising aid. With time available before taking up her post as a Dame at Eton, Rita packed a bag and travelled to Romania. She was joined by another lady, Angela, who had also watched the TV show.
Their destination was the village of Giurcani, in the far north east of the country and home to an orphanage that had not yet received any foreign aid. The reality was far worse than the programme. She describes dark shut-tered rooms with urine running on the floor and tiny, silent, undernourished children – some of whom had been tied to their cots with strips of sheeting – covered in cuts and sores.
During their first visit, the two volunteers struggled to affect change, often impeded by the orphanage's director who took offence at many aspects of their presence. But there were plenty of successes too, including weaning some of the small children who were still only bottle fed on to solid food so that they had the strength to sit up and walk around, and potty training them so that they no longer festered in their own waste.
After three months Rita had to return to England and start her job caring for students at Eton, but over the next few years she travelled regularly to Romania during the school holidays, always with a fundraising project afoot. The initial influx of aid had long gone and she describes it as "something of a lonely, one-woman crusade". Often, returning to Giurcani was disappointing when she would discover the old regime slipping back in and the children being neglected again.
In 1994, Rita rekindled an old relationship with Eric, a police officer from Gloucestershire, and they later married. She left her job and together they bought a house to do up back in Scilly. It was during his first visit to the orphanage in 1999 that they struck upon the most ambitious goal yet.
Throughout her time in Romania, there were three orphans in particular – Adrian, Dorin and Gheorgie – who Rita had bonded most strongly with. She said: "They were spotty adolescents with none of the charm of the younger children in the camine who readily won people's hearts with their eyes like melted chocolate. But to me, these teenage boys were the special ones. They were scruffy and shy and probably perplexed as to why anyone would want to be nice to them."
All three have special needs but were being exploited by the orphanage into carrying out harsh labour without pay – even Dorin, who has no hands or feet, was working punishingly long hours with little food. During the trip in 1999 they asked Rita and Eric to help them escape the facility.
Back in Scilly, the island community and visitors got involved and donated to the project and, in 2001, it finally became a reality. A suitable house had been found and a local family recruited to act as guardians for the three young men. After a lifetime of cruelty and sadness they now live independently. Rita said: "The three of them are an absolute credit. They're grown men now, they work hard to grow their own food and whenever we ask if they need anything the response is usually so endearing, requesting a lampshade or something like that. We only get out there every second year now but are in constant contact. The boys Skype often and their guardians email with updates."
After the arrival of grandchildren in their own lives, Rita and Eric left Scilly and now live in Totnes in South Devon. To date, fundraising for the orphanage and the independent living project has raised around £110,000.
Rita said: "I think this is a unique story and a piece of social history and I wanted to put it down for posterity. I wrote to Anneka Rice once I'd finished the book and was delighted to get a reply. She said she was very moved to think that she had instigated all this."
Sunlight Through the Shadows is available through rollingdiceink.co.uk or as a Kindle download.