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Senior strives to open doors for children in Romania

By Karin Dienst

the seniors in their dorm room

Princeton senior Clare Vierbuchen (left) runs Open Doors, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for families in Romania, from her room in Dod Hall. Her roommate, senior Allison Cheung (right), serves as vice president of the organization.

Princeton NJ -- Senior year has a lot of pressures, but it typically does not include finding ways to help abandoned children thousands of miles away. For Clare Vierbuchen, a psychology major from Houston, Texas, her academic rigors often pale in comparison to her struggles to strengthen families in Romania.

Five years ago when her family was living in London, Vierbuchen went on a week-long school trip to Romania to visit several orphanages. After that, there was no ignoring what she had seen, not even after her family returned to the United States and she enrolled at Princeton.

Now, from her room in Dod Hall, Vierbuchen runs a nonprofit organization called Open Doors, through which she raises funds to support a household of five abandoned children -- and pays the salaries of two women who serve as their foster parents -- in the town of Bistrita in northern Romania. She also is working to establish a community center in or near Bistrita, an area that has a large ethnic Romany population (commonly called ''Gypsies'').

According to Vierbuchen, the children she helps, who range in age from 5 to 9, ''fell through the cracks'' of the overextended child care system in Romania. Four of the children are siblings and were abandoned by their parents and placed in orphanages, but their parents, who will not give permission for them to be adopted, still visit them sporadically. The fifth child's mother is mentally ill. Through her efforts, Vierbuchen ensures that the children can live together in a stable home environment and attend a Montessori school.

To support the household, which Vierbuchen established in 2003 and refers to as a ''family center,'' she has to raise $1,200 a month. She does this by finding sponsors for the children -- currently there are nearly 20 regular supporters, including four Princeton students -- but money is tight. If the funds grow, Vierbuchen hopes to add two more children to the family center and move them from their rented apartment to a house.

The responsibilities Vierbuchen has taken on are great, especially since her busy schedule as a Princeton senior includes 20 hours of work per week at various libraries on campus as well as babysitting jobs. ''It's very stressful, but it's definitely worth it,'' she said. ''I wouldn't have it any other way.''

Every week, Vierbuchen, who taught herself Romanian, phones the children and their foster parents to catch up with their news. ''I get phone cards and call to talk about school,'' she said. ''And if the kids do anything bad I'm supposed to talk with them about that.'' Right now the excitement is building in anticipation of Vierbuchen's next visit over the winter break.

Vierbuchen goes to Romania at least twice a year for extended visits. In January, she will be in Bistrita for as long as possible, toting take-home assignments from class. Not only will she move in with the children, but she also will proceed with plans for the community center, which she says she has thought about since freshman year.


Clare Vierbuchen, shown here at an orphanage in Romania, will spend much of January in that country visiting the children supported through the nonprofit organization she started.

Recognizing that the plight of orphans in Romania stems from larger societal issues, Vierbuchen has found ways to introduce what she has learned in studying psychology at Princeton. Specifically, she has set up training for staff members and caregivers in various orphanages and foster care settings, with a focus on play therapy, behavior modification and finding ways to implement educational tools. To gain practical knowledge, Vierbuchen regularly calls on the help of Michael Litchman, a visiting professor of psychology.

In preparation for her upcoming visit, Vierbuchen is working with Litchman to create a psychoeducational program geared to helping children who are struggling academically. A particular goal is to offer new approaches for teaching math to children in grades one through eight.

''Romania is such a poor country that the identification of learning disabled children and the educational remediation of its poorest citizens is literally decades behind what it is in Western Europe and the United States,'' said Litchman.

''Unfortunately, there is no money for Clare to buy materials that can unequivocally identify those children who need special education, but she has already started working with some children who show signs of learning disabilities. Clare has the passion, the compassion and the determination to make a significant impact in the lives of these children,'' he said.

Through the community center, Vierbuchen plans to provide preschool and after-school programs for children as well as literacy and job placement programs for adults. She estimates that it will cost about $16,000 to run the center, once established. Already, she has in mind psychologists in Romania she would like to ask to join the staff.

After she graduates, Vierbuchen expects to spend two years in Bistrita working to realize her dreams for the community center. Afterward, she will pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in the United States, and then she anticipates returning to Eastern Europe, perhaps to Russia next time.

To learn more about Open Doors, visit <Web site>. Vierbuchen also provides sponsors with updates about the children the organization helps through a monthly newsletter.