Revisiting ‘The Iron Crib,’ Part 2

By Don Shelby, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — When WCCO-TV first did the stories about the thousands of Romanian orphans in 1990, the pictures and stories shocked Minnesotans. People sent medical and financial help. And others opened their homes and hearts to adopt the children.

Two decades ago, Denise Billhorn walked into one of those orphanages.

“Oh, any of these babies would be wonderful,” she said. “There’s not one I’ve seen yet that I wouldn’t want to take home.”

Minnesotans rushed in to save the thousands of children left behind in Romania’s orphanages 20 years ago. We met a young electrical engineer working as a translator.

“A Romanian woman named Luci will help them. She’s found babies for four other Minnesota families,” Don Shelby said, in the original report.

“But it’s difficult for us to believe that somebody coming from America to take a Romanian child. What for?” said Lucia Anderson.

Anderson now lives in Minnesota. Looking back at that time today, Anderson said it’s still hard for her to believe.

“I was supposed to just translate for them,” she said.

Back then, no one in Romania knew about the dreadful conditions inside the orphanages.

“I went in to the first orphanage and I just could not believe it,” Anderson said. “I remember I went home and I cried the whole night. I couldn’t believe that there could be children living like this, and people around them not doing the right thing.”

Anderson also remembered the fear many Romanians had that Americans would take the children and sell them for body parts. Adoption was finally allowed in 1990.

“But since a new law passed in August, children have slowly been leaving the orphanages for new homes,” Shelby said in the original report. “Ileana Dura’s daughter, Georgiana, is one of the first.”

Julie Ruggieri adopted Georgiana from the poor and desperate conditions of Romania.

“I can’t believe she’s going to be here,” she said during the report.

WCCO met Georgiana’s mother while reporting from Romania.

“Ileana Dura has six children. Four of them live at home, another in the hospital. She had no money to raise the last, a girl she named Georgiana,” Shelby reported.

Today, Georgiana is 21 years old.

“I was the lucky one to come over here,” she said. “I try to look at it as I have a better life over here, that they did what I wish I could have done for all my brothers and sisters.”

“In fact for some of the parents in Romania, giving a child away is the highest expression of love,” reported Shelby.

And then there is the boy who captured everyone’s heart, especially Shelby’s.

“On October 17th, Ian Stan turned 9 years old,” Shelby said in the original report. “On the day he was born his parents abandoned him. His whole life has been spent in an orphanage.”

Shelby met Ian at one of the orphanages for older children. Instead of napping like the other kids, there he was.

“In every picture he stood out — awake, alive, smiling. Trying very hard to get our attention, and he did,” Shelby reported. “When I got close enough I noticed he’d hidden beneath his dirty linen several pieces of hard candy he’d apparently hoarded. And he shared with me one of his precious possessions. The orphanage had not been able to stamp out his spirit.”

Today Ian, is 28 years old and officially changed his name to John Donald. He lives in southern Minnesota and Shelby still sees him from time to time, but John doesn’t like to talk on TV.

“Do you ever wonder what happened to all the kids you grew up with?” asked Shelby.

“I wonder about them but you never know what happened with them at all because I have no idea what happened to them,” said John.

Because of the Iron Crib stories, Shelby hears from people like Jill Grasley all the time. She was just a high school student when they aired.

“The kids were so needy,” said Grasley. “So when I saw that, I wanted to go and volunteer there.”

And so she did. And after working at the Romanian orphanages in college, Grasley is now assistant director at Crossroads Adoption agency.

“I just wanted to do something to help those kids,” she said.

Others felt that same need. Kay and Mike Wilcox live in New Prague. They had adopted other children from other countries but after seeing the Iron Crib, they reached out to two brothers in Romania.

“So you know tears and everything because this is just a scrawny little kid that came from Romania,” said Kay Wilcox.

Peter and Daniel suffered from their time in the orphanage. And the Wilcoxes thought it would be best to send them to a military school to get more structure.

Both boys are now successful — Daniel is a computer technician and Peter graduated at the top of his class.

“I grew up in an orphanage in Romania,” Peter said.

His commencement speech in 2002 didn’t leave a dry eye in the place.

“God and my parents rescued me from that harsh environment and I had the great fortune to be brought to a country where opportunity is endless. I want to thank God for giving my parents the knowledge and insight to know what was best for me,” he said.

And even though Peter had applied unsuccessfully to be admitted to Virginia Military Institute, after that speech, the head of VMI immediately offered him entrance into the school.

“We’re just so pleased these boys are members of our family,” said Mike Wilcox.

Shelby has always said the Iron Crib was the most important story he’s ever done.

“It was the greatest story of my life, too,” Anderson said.

Anderson stays in contact with most of the families she helped adopt from Romania. While the road hasn’t always been easy for all of them, she is certain of one thing.

“I’m sure that in a few more years they are going to look back and really, really understand how fortunate they were to be in the right place at the right time,” Anderson said.

Peter Wilcox was the battalion commander at his school when he gave that speech. He’s now a captain in the Army and has served in Iraq. He’s currently stationed in Afghanistan.

His father said the gratitude he has for being rescued from the Romanian orphanage resulted in his love of country — the United States of America.

If you’d like more information on adoption, you can contact:

Crossroads Adoption Services
Phone: 952.831.5707

Joan Gilbertson, Producer
Contact Joan

  • Joyce Wilts

    Our Grandson came from Romania. He was adopted through Crossroads. He is the only child of our daughter and son-in-law. He graduated from Osseo High and is at Marshall Un. in Marshall,MN. He has been such a blessing to all of us.These stories bring back memories the day ,Jan,16, 1990 when they went to get him. I thank God everyday he was given to us and for Don refreshing all of us about the terriable conditions over there. Joyce Wilts the grandmother of Joseph Schneberger, Osseo, Mn.

  • Jan Starkey Hilgenkamp

    Thank you Don and All the staff at WCCO for investing your energy in this remarkable story over the years. As with all stories it is so hard to capture all the fine details that define the depth of difference made in all of the lives involved. Your version was quite moving. It made me wish you could make a full length documentary! Perhaps you will want to do something like this after you have more free time? (So much for retirement if you tackle that!)

    For example many of the MN families and others returned to the orphanages just a year or so after these adoptions to paint, clean and replace defective products. They were delighted to find the orphanages much improved as a result of the spotlight shined by WCCO and other news organizations. The Romanian people rose swiftly to the occasion to adopt the children themselves and provide better food and conditions overall. Imagine how many more stories are there in Romania to discover and how truly life-changing the situation became!

    I personally enjoyed attending the 10 year reunion party in 2000 for this group. I loved watching Don and your warm and genuine rapor with each of the children as you interviewed them. Sadly time or the editing room did not allow you to include footage from that re-visit. Lucia Anderson did a wonderful job pulling that together!

    I have the privelege to know Lucia personally as she and her new MN family have become an extension of our family. Her story is remarkable too! It is our personal prayer that someday Lucia and our family can return to re-unite Georgianna with her Romanian family. I imagine many of these families share this prayer?

    I believe that all the parents, the Crossroads Agency and Lucia Anderson had such courage and stamina to advocate for the children. I hope that indeed the Romanian people will regard the tragic events of that era in their history and the victories acheived by our group as a blessing from God.

    Jan Starkey- Hilgenkamp.
    Georgianna Lucia Ruggieri’s aunt..

  • Mary Wiener

    Wonderful story, wonder how many children were adopted successfully over these years since the discovery of the orphanages.

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