I looked down on my new friend as he gave me a rubber bracelet
that read "Veselie. Zi de Zi." "What does it mean, Claudio?" I
asked the 10-year-old Romanian orphan.
He looked up at me with big eyes and a bright smile -- "Happy.
Day by day."
When he said this, a question immediately came to mind that I
wanted to posit to all of the children here at the Pro Vita
orphanage in a tiny village in Romania, the remotest place on earth
I have ever been in my life.
Like the other 200 orphans here, Claudio has no parents to love
him. Others are with their mothers who fled here as victims of
abuse, with nowhere else to turn. Here, there are none of the
simple luxuries we have become accustomed to - no TVs, no iPhones.
They have no sports teams or dance companies to join. They eat
nearly the same meal every day with no fruits or vegetables. They
live in sparse, crowded houses on a dirt road. They walk two miles
to school every day, but their chances of going to college and
leading a successful life (as we define it) are slim to none.
And so, I wanted to ask them, "How are you all so happy when you
have so little?" I didn't ask that question, of course, but I
pondered it long enough while I was there to discover the
My wife and I had decided to take our two children (ages 14 and
11) to this neglected section of the world in July to volunteer at
this orphanage through United Planet. We were doing this for
various reasons: to give back, to teach our children to be
empathetic and engaged citizens of the world, and for some
adventure. But upon arriving, we instantly thought to ourselves,
"what have we done?" We don't speak the language and everyone is a
stranger. There are no hospitals or police stations for hundreds of
miles, and, God help me, no Starbucks! We didn't even have cell
phone service or email access. I felt the opposite of
claustrophobic -- we were too remote, too detached and too
vulnerable. Even the beautiful Carpathian Mountain range that
surrounded us was not enough to ease my initial anxiety.
But as the days progressed, the world slowly became smaller and
more familiar to us. We immersed ourselves in projects like
painting a house, helping feed the farm animals and loading wood
onto trucks. But the most rewarding and comforting experience was
with the orphans. We learned that you don't need language or modern
conveniences to engage children. They are truly the same
everywhere. We enjoyed playing board games, chess, arts and crafts
and tag. We arranged a soccer match with a ball we brought (sadly,
they didn't even have that). We broke bread with them every day and
exchanged stories. The orphanage is religiously affiliated and run
with a firm but loving hand. We saw that the staff and children are
kind, thankful - and relentlessly happy. They open their arms wide
to joy. They have not given in to despair. They don't fight it, but
seem to ignore it or are unconscious of its existence.
As lawyers, we all are trained to be pessimistic. We anticipate
how we could lose a trial, how a contract could fail or how a
divorce could end up hurting our client. Our clients come to us
carrying sadness, stress or anger. We also consistently deal with
adversity, contentiousness and sometimes failure. Moreover, we
start out with huge law school debt, and sometimes feel overworked,
or underworked, or uncertain about our career or firm.
So, when my practice presents emotional options, including
frustration or discontent, I remember that we are the voice of our
clients who look to us with nowhere to turn. We have the ability to
make right what went wrong. We can make a tremendous difference in
their lives and, in so doing, maybe make the world a little better
place. I remain resolute that we belong to an honorable profession
that advocates for justice, equality and fairness. In other words,
in trying times, I am thankful for the wisdom of a bright-eyed
orphan who finds happiness in a desolate village far away in
Romania. He taught me that you find happiness by choosing it,
relentlessly -- day by day.
Jeffrey N. Catalano, the MBA's president-elect, is a
partner at Todd & Weld LLP in Boston, where he represents
victims of catastrophic injuries in the areas of medical
negligence, product liability, auto accident, class action and
other personal injury cases.