From living in the city dump to the challenges of securing a job, food, heat and water, the nomadic Roma Gypsies are considered the poorest population in Eastern Europe, but to Crouse resident and nurse Kathy Petty Heafner, they are her heart and utmost calling.
Having traveled overseas twice this past summer, including to the Pilopovichi village in Ukraine in July and the Szekelyhid village in Romania a month later, Heafner already has plans to return to one of the two countries in July 2014 on a medical mission through the state organization North Carolina Baptist.
She said the organization maintains a connection with the Hungarian Baptist Aide to serve the Roma people and provide translators.
Heafner first learned about the opportunity to travel to the Ukraine in 2011, after receiving an email from the N.C. Baptist Men urging area nurses to join the trip.
At the time, Heafner had been looking for a new mission field — feeling as though she needed to move on from her previous work in Honduras, where she had traveled about eight different times since 2007.
“I was praying that God would send me somewhere else,” she said, “and it worked out perfectly.”
While Heafner was still impacted by her non-medical mission trip in July, which focused on converting a village house into a church, conducting a kid-friendly operation similar to the Bible school her church Anthony Grove Baptist Church in Crouse puts on each year, and door-to-door evangelism, she prefers the faith-filled expeditions that allow her to use her RN training, she said.
Heafner has been a nurse for at least the last three decades, working for the last 27 years specifically with the 0-3 years-old population.
She currently serves as a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) liaison and intake service coordinator for the state’s Infant Toddler Program, implemented by the Children’s Developmental Services Agency (CDSA).
Heafner said she goes into area hospitals to enroll babies in the program and conduct early intervention.
Oftentimes, she does home visits to work with babies who are not in the NICU.
For medical missions, like the one in August, she and a team of 10, including a doctor and nurse practitioner — medical experts sometimes not available for the trips, she said — carry out physical exams and administer treatment to hundreds living in the Roma villages.
In Szekelyhid alone, Heafner said, there were three different gypsy camps.
Over the course of six clinic days, the medical mission team treated 658 people as young as 5 days old and as old as 79 years.
The team also raises money — in addition to the $2,000 per person they collect for food, travel, lodging and insurance — for prescription and over-the-counter medications to stock the pharmacy they take with them.
Heafner said the group anticipates beforehand what kind of medicines they will need to treat the primary ailments plaguing the impoverished Roma population.
From burns, rashes and high blood pressure to parasitic diseases, wounds and upper respiratory infections, the Roma people have become accustomed to poor health.
“It’s not unusual to see a blood pressure of 240/170,” Heafner said.
Because European societies, particularly in Romania and the Ukraine, shy away from gypsies and often distrust them, making it difficult for the population to secure jobs, they are often standoffish when the American mission team and other cultures first engage with them.
“They are very hesitant to talk to strangers,” Heafner said.
When it comes to telling them about the hope of Jesus, she noted, most have never heard of Heaven and prove emotionally unaffected by talk of Hell.
“They have the mindset that they’ve experienced the severity and the harsh treatment of the Soviet Union so Hell won’t be anything compared to that,” she said. “It’s really sad.”
After some time, however, the children open up, often clinging and hanging on the missionaries.
“They don’t know want to think about people loving on them because they are usually bullied and spit on,” Heafner said.
While documentation of the Roma people, originally from India, dates back to the 1400s, she revealed, no one knows how the population became nomadic.
Heafner compared the ailing and destitute people to lepers in the Bible whom she said were also despised by others, forced to live outside the city in addition to walking around yelling, “Unclean, unclean.”
Growing food in poor soil and using only what they can find in dumpsters to build makeshift homes, heaters and other necessary supplies for survival in a climate that Heafner said often reaches extreme high and low temperatures throughout the year, the Roma people’s needs are numerous.
She said she’s witnessed a Roma bride as young as 14 — an age not uncommon for marrying and starting a large family. And without birth control, gypsy families grow to immense sizes.
Heafner said the population is also known for its musical talent and ability to fashion unique objects out of metal and wood.
While she and her different mission teams often lodge in local churches while overseas, Heafner stayed several days with a Ukrainian family — a father and his two adult daughters — during her first summer trip this year.
Not only did she experience her first encounter with a privy — an outhouse — but she also bathed in a tub located inside the home’s kitchen, since she said that’s where the running water had been hooked up.
While she has yet to determine the location of next summer’s medical mission expedition, she knows working with the Roma people will again be her objective.
She considered her many European voyages to be obedience to God’s command to bring truth and love to others.
“I made a covenant a long time ago that wherever He sent me I would go,” she said.
Heafner also has no doubt her experiences provide her with immeasurable blessing, each time opening her eyes even further to how lucky she and other Americans are at home.
“I get more out of it than I feel like I give,” she said. “We just don’t know how blessed and spoiled we are.”
On Saturday, Heafner will hold a fundraiser for her trip from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the newly renovated “Old Jerry Heafner Store Building,” located on N.C. 150 in Crouse.
To learn more about Heafner and her personal story of mission work with the Roma people, watch her testimonial video on YouTube under keyword “LHT Story of Touch.”