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Ian Tilling went to Romania to help children in need – and never left

Today the retired British policeman's nonprofit Casa Ioana is a place where women and children can go to feel safe and learn how to rebuild their lives. 

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    The former policeman has started homeless shelters in Romania. He arrived in 1990, just after the communist regime collapsed.
    Courtesy of Ian Tilling
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It’s been a journey to Romania of a quarter-century-and-counting for Ian Tilling. During that time he has been instrumental in setting up long-term shelters in Bucharest, the capital, initially for orphans, later for the homeless, and later still for families suffering from domestic abuse.

Casa Ioana, which he founded 20 years ago, recently opened a second night shelter in Bucharest, where women and children can go to feel safe and start to rebuild their lives. The charity is also about to roll out a series of courses to help recovering women develop job skills.

“Without a job the chances of changing the situation [for these women] is quite remote. The only way out really is through employment,” says Mr. Tilling, sitting in the historic Old Town neighborhood in the heart of downtown Bucharest.

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Tilling, a retired police detective from England, first came to Romania after seeing disturbing televised images of institutionalized children that were broadcast around the world following the Romanian revolution in December 1989.

“My wife asked me if I had seen the pictures coming out of Romania, the awful images of children languishing in orphanages,” says Tilling, explaining his first glimpse of the country that would come to dominate his life.

Within six weeks he and a British nurse had gathered up supplies and were driving across Europe in a borrowed van filled with donated baby food, diapers, toys, and medicine. They ended up at an orphanage called Plataresti, a “hellhole 40 minutes drive outside Bucharest,” Tilling recalls.

At Plataresti, Tilling was asked to help with a group of twenty 7- to- 9-year-olds who lived together in one room. Their cots were lined up 10 on each wall “like a row of prison cells” and the children never left them, he says. Most were still being bottle fed. The smell was awful. Tilling was tasked with talking with the children and keeping them clean, neither an easy task.

“For the month I was working there I was numb,” he says. Yet during the drive back across the Continent to Britain he decided he must go back to Romania. A little while later he did return, this time with 298 other people and a convoy of 100 trucks with supplies.

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At the time of his first visit Tilling had been coming to the end of a long police career and wondering what to do next.

“I joined the police at 16 as a cadet. It was all I knew,” he says. He was living in the south of England with his wife and four children. Then in 1991 his eldest son, just 19, died in a motorbike accident and Tilling’s life fell apart.

In 1992 he took early retirement and moved to Romania to run a British charity he had established to provide lifelong care to some of the children from Plataresti.

“Looking back I was clearly escaping the hurt I felt back home,” he says.

However, rather than helping to heal his pain the project proved to be a nightmare itself, with the Romanian government breaking promises and officials demanding bribes. He was left trying to manage a small apartment block in Ferentari, a district of Bucharest that was fast becoming a ghetto inhabited primarily by desperately poor Roma (commonly called Gypsy) families.

“It was all unraveling, and my personal demons were coming to the front, and I was having to deal with that, too,” Tilling says.

In the winter of 1994-95 he lived with 300 Roma families in a collection of dilapidated apartment buildings. To top it off his marriage was breaking up.

“It was the lowest point in my life, but I was fortunate in that I finished my grieving process,” he says today.

Near the end of that winter friends gathered to urge him to leave, even going so far as collecting money for his plane ticket. But he didn’t want to return to England defeated. Instead he regrouped, creating a new charity – a Romanian one – that would pick up where the British charity had left off.

Casa Ioana was born. Over the next few years it became a halfway house for formerly institutionalized young adults and a resource center that helped local organizations set up a school for children with profound disabilities, as well as a kindergarten for local Roma families.

In 1997 Tilling was approached by the mayor of Bucharest with a request to open a night shelter for homeless men, who had become a growing problem in the city. He eventually agreed after the mayor offered to supply a building to house the shelter.

It opened as an emergency shelter for homeless men. But after a few years Tilling noticed the large number of women who came looking for a place to stay together with their children.

Recognizing that the system was failing these families at a time when they needed to keep together he refocused his efforts. Today, Casa Ioana is the largest provider of temporary shelter for survivors of domestic abuse in Bucharest. “I do what I do out of a profound sense of justice,” he says. “I hate to see people suffering.”

Those who know Tilling say he works day and night. “He is a one-man tornado,” says Nigel Bell, a British expatriate businessman who volunteers his time and expertise to Casa Ioana. “He tries to do everything himself; it is absolutely personal to him.”

Despite having the title of president of Casa Ioana, Tilling is often found painting the walls or cleaning the toilets.

Women and children who arrive at the shelters are left alone for the first few weeks. When they are ready they sit down with members of his team, which includes psychologists working pro bono, to develop a plan for moving forward.

Families can stay for as long as a year but Tilling says the vast majority move on within six to eight months. The women get jobs and are able to afford their own places, he says.

Casa Ioana perpetually faces challenges of space and money. It has room for 20 families and nine single women; last year it had to turn away 200 families. “We simply didn’t have room,” Tilling says.

His charity has a budget of about $100,000 a year; 80 percent of its funding comes from private donors and 20 percent from the Romanian government. It employs six staff members. Tilling himself takes no salary and lives on his British pension.

“Ian keeps us together. He brings people in from outside, and he opens the right doors,” says Monica Breazu, one of the social workers employed at Casa Ioana.

Parts of Romania are very traditional, and domestic abuse is often swept under the rug. Women who break away from abusive relationships and end up at Casa Ioana are likely to have been almost completely reliant financially on their husbands.

“Many haven’t got high school diplomas, and without that they can’t access formal training,” Tilling says. “So we created the opportunity for them to return to school. We give them the equivalent of a minimum salary in order to study.” Casa Ioana is also developing a financial-literacy program and six other courses that cover what employers will be looking for from new hires.

Tilling’s journey has never been easy. In 1998 the first Casa Ioana was ransacked by outsiders; everything was stolen right down to the fixtures and electrical wiring. “There were many occasions when I was close to saying enough is enough,” he says. “I’ve invested so much of myself. The good thing was I literally had nothing to go back to, so that was a good incentive to persevere.”

In 2000 Tilling was honored with an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II, shortly after Prince Charles visited Casa Ioana. Two years later he was awarded Romania’s equivalent.

Tilling knows that eventually he’ll have to pass the responsibility for Casa Ioana along to someone else. But it appears that it isn’t going to be anytime soon.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that help children worldwide:

Globe Aware helps people and communities prosper without becoming dependent on outside aid. Take action: Volunteer to work helping the underprivileged in Romania.

Eastern Congo Initiative works with the people of eastern Congo, where local, community-based approaches are creating a sustainable society. Take action: Support access to education for girls in eastern Congo.

Half the Sky Foundation enriches the lives of orphans in China, offering loving, family-like care. Every orphaned child should have a caring adult in his or her life. Take action: Help a teen in Half the Sky’s youth services program.

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