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Dennis W. Felty President, KHS
Keystone Human Services, Annual Meeting 1999
December 14, 1999
Last month I had the privilege to visit people living in orphanages and psychiatric hospitals in Russia, Moldova and Romania. It was a very compelling experience to see societies that are coming apart at the seams politically and economically resulting in social need that is beyond the concept of human intervention.
In all of these institutions I was given complete freedom to photograph the children and the surroundings in which they lived. I met many very committed people doing remarkable work with little in resources.
The patterns were surprisingly similar to the patterns that existed here in the United States in the late 1960s when Keystone was founded. However, it was interesting to observe that we saw nothing in Eastern Europe that came close to the horrendous conditions that existed in our own state institutions in the United States at that time. This experience was a reminder that thirty years is a reasonable time frame for the accomplishment of significant social change.
In the final phase of the trip we visited with Ron and Sue Bates in Bucharest Romania. The Bates who are originally from Texas live in the ghettos of Bucharest and have been working with the street children of the city. There are thousands of children living in the underground heating tunnels and sewers of Bucharest. Many have been abandoned because their family could not feed them or were told "you have to leave se we'll have more food for the rest". Others are children raised in state orphanages and set free as teenagers. Some lived in very abusive homes, some were put out for prostitution and some came from families that sold there flats for money for alcohol. What Ron and Sue have found themselves doing is beginning to take in the babies of the "Street Children". Babies do not survive in the underground and the young parents often living as husband and wife love their children and want something better than the underground. The Bates now have twelve infants living with them and some of the parents of the infants visit daily.
I had the privilege to interview five young mothers, about their lives, how they came to live in the underground and what their lives are like there. Mihaela who is eighteen and is the mother of Leonard is expecting a second child. Upon completion of an extensive interview Mihaela invited me to visit her and her husband Laurentiu in the underground. Laurentiu is the leader of the clan of children that live in one particular area of Bucharest. Later that evening we traveled to where Mihaela lives in an area behind the Bucharest McDonalds. Laurentiu met us, greeted us warmly and escorted us across a dark field to a manhole cover which he removed and then showed us how to descend into the Bucharest underground. Their home was concrete sarcophagus twelve feet long, eight feet wide and seven feet high. Mihaela and Laurentiu have lived here as husband and wife for five years from the time when they were both thirteen. There home is part of the city's steam heat distribution system and was warm and dry. Scripture was written in chalk on the walls. Their home was lit by a series of six candles mounted on the wall. I found myself sitting there astounded by how welcome I felt in their underground home. After visiting for a while, I began to notice additional candles being lit in adjoining tunnels. These were the candles of other children, apparently making a determination that, as an adult, I was not a threat to them. Laurentiu took us above ground then down into other manholes where we descended into the homes of other children living in small groupings of five to seven. All of the children wanted me to take family portraits and then wanted to be photographed with me.
All of the children use Aurolac as an inhalant. Aurolac is a paint thinner that is extremely addictive and destroys the brain, liver, kidneys and lungs. All of the children spoke of dreaming about coming to America.
The whole experience was so profound – beautiful, intelligent engaging children, many of which speak English living in an underground society devoid of adult presence and love. The whole experience had a surreal, Peter Pan quality and was reminiscent of a time when we played "fort" in the backyard. William Goldings' Lord of the Flies is disturbingly descriptive of the lives of these dear children.
If there's one thing to be learned about the human condition, it is the universality of inequity. Though the scale of the issues in Eastern Europe are extraordinary, the problems, the needs and the dreams experienced by the children of Bucharest are similar to those experienced by the children of Harrisburg. Indeed, no single demographic or culture has a monopoly on pain, suffering and challenge. And goodness knows, no organization can address the compelling societal need inherent in the human condition, we can all bear witness to that.
What was striking about Bucharest's underground society, is that despite the absence of schooling, social services, and medical care, these utterly abandon children still seek to establish a family-like structures with a recognized leader or father figure who's all of 18 years old. How interesting it is that no matter how challenged or how compromised a population might be, there's always that unmistakable yearning for belonging and family.
Which brings me to our gathering this evening because on one very important level, that is the nature of our annual gathering as a family of committed individuals, coming together to celebrate a shared past, compelling work and a promising future. Much has happened within Keystone over the past year that is going to reverberate to the roots of our organization.
As a result of what I believe to be very exciting change in our organizational structure, our member agencies will provide the fabric for creating the most responsive and accessible Comprehensive System of Care anywhere. Quite intentionally, it promotes a greater interconnectedness with each other, with the community as well as with those whom we support. Reaping the harvest that only 27 years of experience can bring, Keystone Human Services confidently welcomes the new millennium as a dynamic, growing organization that is fully prepared to continue helping vulnerable people and their families find friends, family, home, work and presence in the community.
One part of this strategy is to aggressively position ourselves in these times of rapid change and increasing competition. Keystone Human Services is a major influence in defining the ideal connection between human need and humane inspiration and the structure of organized services.
To promote our Vision for the future, we recently completed production of a condensed version of our 25th anniversary video which I take great pleasure in sharing with you this evening.
Keystone Service Systems did not become Keystone Human Services simply because the name has more sizzle. We became Keystone Human Services because we have evolved; and we continue to aspire to the truest essence expressed by Bruce Springsteen lyrics "The greatest of gifts is to use ones own freedom to work for the freedom of others".
The founding of Keystone in 1972, it took an immense physical, psychic and emotional energy to will Keystone Residence into existence. We had to score everything from the ground up, because there were no familiar melodies from which we could draw inspiration. Now, after more than a quarter century, that role of composer is joined by that of conductor. As members of a common orchestra, experience has taught us well, and many of you play your parts exceedingly well. Admittedly, some of us miss notes occasionally; and that is because we still have a great deal of practicing to do and new scores to master.
Each of us, each of you, staff, volunteers, family members, and board members, brings unique contributions to our combined success. It is a privilege to share with you what is often a tumultuous and challenging path, but what is truly a path worth taking.
Half way around the world, the suffering I observed in Romania and Russia is on a scale that is perhaps beyond human intervention. But such pain is the history of the world, not unlike the pain we witnessed in our own institutions not so long ago. What is vital to remember is that there is hope for the children in the underground and all people experiencing challenges, as long as people persist in reaching out – one individual at a time. Vast social service changes such as those needed in Romania can happen. We know that for we have lived it. But we are here now, survivors in our own right and as committed as ever to our underlying imperative. Keystone's premise of individual dignity is no less urgent now than it was 27 years ago. It just seems more within reach…because we've made it so.
As we come together to close out the work of this millennium, it is an honor and a privilege to be leading the Keystone Human Services in its on-going pursuit of freedom and equity.
Equally important, it is an honor to be in the presence of my own family, my wife Barbara as her love and support of our work and my often strange passions is what has truly sustained me during the work of these years.
From the dormitories of Harrisburg State Hospital to our origins on Green Street to the under ground of Bucharest, I salute you all as we continue in our life-altering mission.