When the toys came to Oradea: A Welsh Christmas for the orphans of Romania

A GYPSY girl clutches a shoebox full of gifts. This may be the first Christmas when the child, abandoned by her parents, has known love and kindness.

She is one of 92 children at Caminul Felix, a model orphanage run by Evangelical Christians just outside Oradea, an industrial city in western Romania. Last week, a large British aid convoy took presents from children all over North Wales to orphanages in Romania, along with a Bouncy Castle for the children to play on.

The shoebox was among thousands of gifts distributed in Eastern Europe by Operation Christmas Child, a charity founded in October 1990 by Dave Cook, a father of four from Wrexham, after he saw the first television reports of Romanian orphanages. He wanted to do something practical, so he collected presents from local schools and took them out to Romania. Since then his organisation has taken 2,000 tons of aid worth pounds 5m to 10 former communist countries.

The model orphanage is startlingly moving and impressive. Children who came into the world as millstones round their parents' necks and knew nothing better until they were abandoned have been given a new life there. Conditions are good without being luxurious. The staff are patient and devoted. There are 80 of them for the 92 children at the moment.

Altogether, Romania has about 200,000 orphans. The state-run orphanage in Oradea houses 200, in conditions of disciplined discomfort not much worse than those in an English public school. It is certainly much better than the reputation of a Romanian orphanage. The plentiful staff clearly care about their charges. But the whole place runs in an extraordinary silence. Nothing seems to be done without permission.

When the convoy from Operation Christmas Child arrived, with the Bouncy Castle for the children to play on for an hour, the lucky ones who were permitted to bounce and leap around were given balls and balloons to play with while they did so; but when their bounce finished, the balls had to be returned and the balloons popped. Regulations.

Western charities have installed in the state-run orphanage the little things that were missing under communism: windows, lavatories and a proper heating system. Operation Christmas Child has taken 16 convoys to the orphanage in the past three years. What should have been the last arrived early this month, to be filmed by the BBC for tonight's edition of Songs of Praise, which comes from the Second Baptist Church of Oradea.

But the organisers now see no way of extricating themselves. They cannot stop a supply on which the orphans have come to depend.

The clothes budget in the state orphanage is dollars 2 ( pounds 1.50) per child per year. At the moment this sum buys one shoe. The Caminul Felix orphanage cost around dollars 2m to set up, and has a budget of dollars 120 per child per month. It is a wonderful place, and a beacon of hope, but it is not, and cannot be, a model for the rest of the country.

Even the improvements in state orphanages have had a paradoxical effect: as conditions in the orphanages have improved, the supply of orphans has risen.

As the orphanage children played for their hour on the Bouncy Castle, a gang of youngsters from the streets outside pressed against the gates, watching them. A photographer from the aid convoy clowned for them until they smiled. Then he had his picture. 'I love you]' he said to the gang. 'We hate you,' said one of the boys in English, smiling.

Operation Christmas Child, however, continues to build on the simple idea that almost everyone in Britain can do something for children in need abroad. On 15 December, an Antonov transport, the largest plane in the world, will deliver to Zagreb 50,000 shoeboxes full of Christmas presents, 86,000 chocolate eggs and 16,000 teddy bears for the children of Croatia and Bosnia.

(Photograph omitted)