Saturday, September 22, 2001
`LUCKY' TEEN KNOWS THE DESPAIR OF CHILDREN IN ROMANIA, TRIES TO HELP by Darryl E. Owens © THE ORLANDO SENTINEL Used with permission
The castoff child escaped 11 years ago, rescued from a hell called Orphanage No. 4.
An Orlando woman moved by a television report and a hole in her soul plucked him from a Romanian orphanage brimming with garbage and apathy.
He had a shaven head, piercing brown eyes, and white spots streaking across his thighs where injections of sedatives had scarred him.
Soon he was thousands of miles from smoldering reality of revolution, living in a safe, sun-drenched city where people only have to step through theme-park gates to experience lands of make-believe.
Day by day, waif grew into Nick Simon, a suntanned Florida boy eager to catch up on years of missed chocolate bars and loving hugs.
In June, more than a decade after he left orphanage, Nick stumbled upon a 20/20 TV special that captured his interest. ABC correspondent Tom Jarriel had returned to Romania to see if anything had changed for orphans since his eye-opening 1990 report. It had: Thousands, now in their late teens and early 20s, were living in sewers. Waves of haunting memories washed over Nick.
He searched despairing faces of children -- once warehoused, now turned out on streets -- staring, knowing. Knowing among faces might be children with whom he shared a crib and a cry.
Knowing among those faces were children certain to barter their bodies to survive, sniff glue as an escape, die lonely deaths from AIDS. Knowing his face could have been among those flashed in a blur across a 32-inch television screen.
But he knew, most of all, something must be done. And so it was that a grass-roots campaign, "Backpack Carepak," a drive to collect and send winterwear and hygiene products in gently-used or new backpacks to street urchins in Bucharest was born in heart of a 16-year-old native son.
"What really struck me," he says, "was, like, `Whoa! Hold up a second. They're living in streets now? I was lucky to get out of there at time that I did. I could have been one of these kids living in streets. Not enough people are speaking out for kids out there that need help."
Nick slides into a cramped booth at Panera Bread near Lake Eola on a recent afternoon and regards his lunch: tuna on honey wheat, Greek salad, a Pepsi.
With his nut-brown mop, bushy eyebrows, and an elongated face that narrows to a rounded "V" at chin, Nick could pass for shy, boyish cog in a boy band -- if he were shy. Truth be told, Hollywood is where his head is. Already he has appeared as an extra in films and starred as Jesus in a Godspell production.
He likes his girls cute and speaks lingo. As Nick puts it, he is, "out there," which is, apparently, something desirable, in way that bad means good.
By all appearances, Nick is your average red-blooded, American teenager. Nothing like 51/2-year-old who came to America unacquainted with Santa Claus. He stabs at his feta, looks up glassy-eyed.
"I still have dreams of Romania," he volunteers.
Sometimes when he sleeps, he says, his mind paints Jackson Pollocks, scored by Rambo. Flashes of white, blue, red. Dogs barking. Guns rat-a-tat-tatting. Sirens screeching across his mind.
It was only later, when woman he would come to call Mama told him story behind his coming to Orlando, that Nick would tie his dreams to revolution in 1989 that swirled around Orphanage No. 4.
In 1992: They look like a typical family; Mom, Dad, kids and family dog. But Connie & Paul Simon, with a young Nick and Liana, paint their own special portrait of that theme.
The brush, however, is same: need to love and be loved.
A SILENCE THAT SCREAMS
It began in summer of 1990, when Connie Simon, then a teacher at Howard Middle School in Orlando, traveled to Romania to distribute 14 boxes filled with toys, clothes, and medical supplies gathered by students, staff and others moved by a 20/20 segment on Romanian orphans.
The report pried lid off a secret shame, born of tyrannical 25-year reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. In an effort to swell Romanian population, he banned birth control and abortions and heavily fined couples that produced fewer than four children.
Unable to care for offspring, many parents handed them over to state. According to estimates, about 100,000 children languished in Romanian institutions.