‘To correspond, to wish’
A friendship began 12 years ago with a shoebox, a Precious Moments postcard and a little girl at an orphanage in Moldova.
Mihaela Ciorici and Sandy Harrell with the postcard that brought them together. Mihaela was 9 years old when she sent the card from Moldova to Harrell in Tulsa.
Images courtesy of Sandy Harrell
Each Christmas, I pack shoeboxes to go to children all over the world through Operation Christmas Child, a project of Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse organization. In the shoeboxes, one puts small gifts such as dolls, cars, socks, toothbrushes, hair bows, balls, ribbons, balloons, coloring books, etc.
I had never put a card in, but one Christmas long ago I had some extra Precious Moments postcards. I jotted a quick “Merry Christmas” and my name and address on each of them.
Several months later, I received a letter from 9-year-old Mihaela Ciorici in Moldova with the simple words, “To correspond, to wish.”
Our letters took four months to reach each other. Mihaela, who spoke Romanian and Russian, was just learning English, and I would write her letters that would take her hours (I later found out) to decipher. Hers were short and sweet, often with a drawing or something she had made.
I researched Moldova and found it was one of the poorest nations that had previously been a part of the USSR. Through Oklahoma State University, I found a woman from Romania (just west of Moldova), who helped me send a poem to Mihaela in Romanian.
I then began sending gifts with my letters: a doll, a Frisbee, a camera, books, a Build-a-Bear (that she thought was possessed when it said, “I love you, Mihaela”). I sent pictures of our family and of grandkids as they were born.
After we had been writing for some time, Mihaela’s mother (through an interpreter) wrote me a beautiful letter of her love for her daughter and son and asked if I knew of any organization in the U.S. that could sponsor them for $25 a month so they could attend a better school that had heat and air. I checked this out with Samaritan’s Purse, and representatives there agreed she was certainly not asking too much. So, I began sending money with my letters and gifts.
Our friendship deepened, and I began to feel like Mihaela and her brother, Alex, were part of our family. I decided that when Mihaela was 16, I wanted to bring them to Tulsa for a visit. It was an ordeal that required formal letters, visas, permission from their parents to leave the country and an interview by the Moldovan Consulate to be sure I wasn’t a sex trader. It also involved the language barrier and a seven-hour time difference.
The siblings had never been on a plane before, much less out of their country. It was so brave of their parents to let their children fly overseas to visit someone they had only corresponded with by letter.
Mihaela and Alex first came to the U.S. in 2006 for two weeks. We were so excited to see each other. The first couple of days were hard with the time change and language barrier. Alex was a year older than Mihaela and spoke better English than she. He was able to help tremendously in getting them through airports and customs on their 19-hour journey here.
Mihaela was scared to death, but her brother was ready for adventure. They finally began to relax after learning to play pool at our house. We rode golf carts, four-wheelers and boats; played miniature golf; went to museums and Bell’s Amusement Park; and ate lots of hamburgers. We all cried when they left.
It was not until they were here in person that I finally understood Mihaela was not the recipient of the shoebox I’d sent. She and her mother were volunteering at the orphanage when the shoeboxes were handed out. She loves art and was “playing” in the office with the cards that came in with the shoeboxes.
The Precious Moments card stood out, and she decided to take it home to try to paint it. She told me it just kept calling her to write to me. I am so happy she did. Neither she nor I have done anything like this since.
I continued to write Mihaela and Alex and send gifts, and in 2009 brought them for a return visit. By this time they knew what to expect, and we added trips to Kansas City, the Bixby Corn Festival, a rodeo and Fantastic Caverns. I even taught them how to drive our pickup in the cemetery and school parking lots. Of course, since most of their transportation is still done by bus or bicycle, driving only made them wish for more. Many of their roads are still traversed by ox and cart, so they thought our Oklahoma roads were wonderful.
They were amazed by simple things like ice in the refrigerator, not having to draw drinking water from a well, being able to take your purse inside a store with you (not leaving it with a guard outside the store), paying for food in the cafeteria after you got your meal (rather than one vendor at a time) — so many things we Tulsans take for granted. The quantity of food we have available was mind-boggling to them. It made our whole family realize how truly blessed we are.
Now, four years later, we can email or Skype anytime we want. Alex graduated college last year, and Mihaela graduated college this year. We decided to celebrate by bringing them for another visit, this time with their parents, Sergiu and Tatiana.
The Ciorici family flew to Tulsa in July and stayed at our home for 10 days. Sergiu and Tatiana did not speak English, but it is amazing how many thoughts and words can be understood with body language.
My husband, Kent, and Sergiu had an instant friendship. Kent gave Sergiu an iPad, and they spent mornings and evenings on our back patio “conversing” through a word translator.
Sergiu, who works for the Moldovan forestry service, enjoyed our ranch, driving four-wheelers and golf carts, shooting clay pigeons and shopping at Bass Pro Shop (he never imagined such a store). We girls made a couple of trips to Hobby Lobby and did crafts, went shopping and planted a garden. Tatiana loves flowers, but her apartment balcony is all the space she has to plant. She was in heaven pulling my weeds every morning and planting flowers.
My husband and my sons Damon DoRemus and Mike Harrell took the whole family for rides in our two small planes. We all attended a Tulsa Drillers ball game, toured Tulsa buildings and neighborhoods, and visited Gilcrease Museum, the Tulsa Zoo, the Linnaeus Gardens and the Oklahoma Aquarium.
One of our stops was to the Tulsa Red Cross, where CEO Regina Moon gave us a tour of their operations. Mihaela had been working as the volunteer coordinator for the Chisinau Red Cross in Moldova and was amazed at the services we offer. The Red Cross in her country is not nearly as active as it is here.
Although she is still interested in eventually working for the International Red Cross, Mihaela recently accepted a job promoting an educational project to help college students access the best scholarship and research opportunities. Jobs are scarce in Moldova, and most young people leave the country to work and send back money to their families.
Mihaela is as beautiful inside as outside. She has continued to work with children in orphanages. No matter what she does, she does it with all her heart and is making changes everywhere she goes. We call her the “Moldovan Tornado.”
When I tell other people stories about this family, they are fascinated and want to know more. I know my family has made a difference in their lives. And even more, they have blessed our family tenfold and certainly made a difference in our lives.
It truly is a small world, and I am glad we all took a chance to make it even smaller.