22 July 2021

This person changed my Life
Natalie Pinkham

Natalie Pinkham and Mirela, the orphan she met while volunteering

Natalie Pinkham is a Patron for Hope and Homes for Children, mum to a young boy and girl, and Sky Sports F1 presenter. While at university, she volunteered in a Romanian orphanage. Here, Natalie reflects on a young girl she met who would change her life forever.

As soon as I arrived at the orphanage in the summer of 2000, I immediately gravitated towards Mirela. She was just four years old, had big brown eyes, a beautiful mop of hair, a cheeky smile and a lovely, playful aura. Before I arrived in Romania I was warned not to grow too emotionally attached to the children, because when we left it could make them feel like they were being abandoned all over again. I found that almost impossible with Mirela.

Wherever I turned that summer, she was by my side. She stole my heart. I remember crying my eyes out on the train home to the UK. I felt such guilt leaving Mirela behind. I fundraised while studying for my university degree and sent money to the orphanage, but I never really knew if it reached Mirela, and I could never shake the guilt. After moving to London my career in broadcasting started to take off, but Mirela never left my thoughts.

About ten years later I told my journalist friend about her, and he encouraged me to return to Romania. I ended up travelling there with a film crew from Channel 5. Having no clues where Mirela might be, they followed my journey to track her down. We eventually discovered her living in a tiny high-rise flat, with a dozen other children. She had a shaven head, shared clothes with the other teenagers and spent her days tied to a radiator, staring at a television. Ten years of neglect while locked up in a series of institutions had completely stripped Mirela of her life skills. She could barely walk. She couldn’t talk. Her hands were clawed. And she was malnourished. There was no joy in her eyes. She just looked absent.

Ten years of neglect while locked up in a series of institutions had completely stripped Mirela of her life skills.

 

I was given permission to take Mirela for a walk outside the flat, but when we headed back indoors she stopped in her tracks and grabbed me tight. She was desperate not to go back inside the flat. That’s when I knew we had to rescue her. With the help of Hope and Homes for Children, we built Mirela a new home, with around-the-clock care. She was so happy. Her smile came back, and I could see a sparkle of joy in her eyes once again.

Tragically, only a short time after moving into her new home, Mirela suffered a huge seizure and passed away. She was just 16 years old. It was truly devastating. I was a lucky child. I was brought up in a family home full of love. But like many children, I took it for granted at times. Mirela taught me that the absence of love can destroy a child. That’s why I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure all children grow up in loving families—never orphanages.

 


 

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