The image of naked Romanian orphans crowded together in cages, splashing in puddles of urine while jaded caretakers poured gruel down their throats just would not leave Kristie Wian's mind.
Wian, who raises two children in a quiet West Severna Park waterfront community, said she couldn't sleep for two days after watching a "20/20" broadcast depicting the prison-camp conditions in Romanian state-run orphanages. The camps were home for the "unsalvageable" -- children abandoned by their parents and deemed worthless by the government because of some disability or psychological disorder.
The worst part of the recurring nightmarish visions, she said, was feeling that there was nothing she could do.
"She woke up in the middle of the night crying, and that disturbed me," said her husband, Bill Wian, who missed the Oct. 5 broadcast. "But not as much as when she broke down and was crying in the middle of the day. She just doesn't carry things like that normally. Then I knew we had to find some way to help these kids."
After trying in vain to locate a nearby branch of any charity for the "unsalvageable" orphanages of Romania, Bill and Kristie Wian decided to start their own.
"We went beyond just sending a regular donation," Kristie Wian said, "because nobody even knew where to send us, not '20/20,' not the Red Cross, not even the Romanian Embassy."
About two weeks ago, in conjunction with the Bethesda-based American Friends of Romania -- an organization that in the past has focused mainly on bringing Romanian professionals to the United States for training -- the Wians started collecting checks and medical supplies to ship to the formerly Communist country.
Bill Wian plans to fly to Romania on Dec. 5 for a weeklong fact-finding tour to "adopt" an orphanage 45 miles outside Bucharest.
"We're dipping into the ski money for this. We're floundering over who needs what and who needs the most. We want to make sure we are doing the right thing -- we're pretty sure we are -- but we want to know," Kristie, said.
Bill, 36 a sprinkler contractor, and Kristie, 33, a part-time mortgage broker, consider themselves typical middle-of-the-road Americans. And, they figure, if television broadcasts from a country they have no connection with can move them to travel to the ends of the earth to try and help, others will join, too.
With scant publicity, the Wians already have garnered 20 boxes of supplies and about $600. They plan to ship the supplies along with other cargo gathered nationwide and delivered by the Boston-based Free Romania foundation.
Martha Rodriguez, a volunteer coordinator for Free Romania, says the group has discovered 13 Romanian orphanages for "unsalvageables" so far.
Rodriguez said the problem started in the 1960s when Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, in the interest of expanding the work force, outlawed birth control and abortions and established harsh economic penalties for families with fewer than five children. While the law prohibited family planning, it allowed mothers to abandon their children to the state.
The result is an estimated 125,000 orphans in a country of 24 million, 40,000 of whom were deemed unsalvageable -- many with deficiencies no worse than club feet, crossed eyes or anemia. They were packed away in orphanages run by caretakers who average only a third-grade education, Rodriguez said.
In the orphanages, government policies resulted in a "reverse care" philosophy. Those most in need of special care receive the least money and attention, resulting in the horrific conditions depicted on "20/20."
The Wians, whose activism has never carried Kristie beyond an $18-a-month membership in the Save the Children foundation, are still unclear about their role, but they expect to be involved with the orphan project for years to come.
"I know I'm in for the long haul," Kristie Wian said. "This is not a problem that's going to go away easily. It could take five years, 10 years or who knows, but hopefully in that time there will at least be a place where people can go with checks and supplies to help."
Checks or supplies can be sent to the American Friends of Romania, 201 Hollyberry Road, Severna Park, Md. 21146. Or call the Wians at 544-5052.