Our Timeline

1991 Babies of Romania

‘Babies of Romania’, founded by James Dillon, became a registered Irish Charity in 1991.

The work of James Dillon, as a camera man, brought him to Negru Voda, in 1990, to make a documentary. After seeing the frightful conditions – in which the children (aged four to sixteen) were sleeping 12-to-a-bed and some even tied to their cots – he decided to set up Babies of Romania.

In January 1991, a group of volunteers – sent by Babies of Romania – arrived at the Nicoresti orphanage.

In February 1991, large numbers of volunteers travelled, from Ireland and the UK, to work as ‘carers’ in the orphanages in Negru Voda. They brought building materials, food and medicines. Carers were involved in everything from building and catering to nursing and physiotherapy.

In the summer of 1991, Babies of Romania, in conjunction with other charities, undertook a rehabilitation programme to provide extra accommodation for the children, a play-area and rehabilitation facilities – in both Negru Voda and Nicoresti. Children who had been forced to sit, without moving all day, were brought on excursions and into the nearby town. Children who were described as ‘disabled for life’, due to neglect, learned to walk.

Babies of Romania had people on the ground 365 days a year – to ensure any aid sent would get to the orphanage safely. The volunteers had to set up their own store rooms with locks on them to prevent the stuff from disappearing.

Babies of Romania held their first fundraiser in 1991 with some Irish celebrity appearances. The success of this event made it possible to send some 40ft containers of aid to Romania.

In December 1991, a lorry-load of aid left Dublin, bound for Nicoresti, bearing clothes, food, toys and gas heaters ­even brussels sprouts and homemade Christmas puddings. The children at Nicoresti had brussels sprouts and Christmas pudding on Christmas Day in 1991.

Babies of Romania succeeded in bringing about significant improvements in the quality of life of the children in these orphanages. The Negru Voda and Nicoresti projects were studied by the Romanian authorities as role models for other orphanages.

In 1997, James Dillon received Honorary Citizenship and the Freedom of Negru Voda town – from the Romanian Ambassador, Elena Zamfirescu – in recognition of ‘exemplary services for improving the health, status and quality of life for Romanian orphans and orphanages’.

1994 Health Action Overseas (HAO)

‘Babies of Romania’ became ‘Health Action Overseas’. By 1994 HAO had moved from providing relief to more sustainable development. Educational and therapeutic programmes were set up for disabled children and young people living in the placement centres and orphanages, and training programmes were set up for local authority staff.

1996 Romania

HAO sent volunteers to Romania with an aim to keep children alive (30% of children were dying when they first went to Romania). They moved on to bring in physiotherapy for children and develop pre-school, play-school and primary school education. Romanian teachers were then employed to the HAO staff (along with the volunteers).

By their friendship, influence and training they succeeded in changing the work practices in two orphanages; Negru Voda and Nicoresti. The conditions of these orphanages were improved drastically. Work practices were reformed and, as a result, those running the orphanages gained job satisfaction. Some workers took children home at weekends in a semi-fostering situation.

HAO also brought Romanian government officials over to Ireland, to show them how orphanages were run and encourage them to change their policies.

1996 China

HAO subsequently endeavoured to change work practices in the orphanages in China and to ensure that the children were fully fed and cared for.

James Dillon was invited to China, by the Chinese government, to advise them on the care of homeless children and the systems in place in the orphanages.

In September 1996, James Dillon and Gerard Byrne (project development officer at HAO) travelled out to Beijing on a two-week fact-finding mission. They applied their Romanian experiences to the Chinese system and so approached the government there – aided by the Minister of State for Overseas Development Aid and the Chinese Embassy in Dublin.

HAO subsequently fundraised and drew up a training programme for discussion with the Ministry for Civil Affairs in Beijing. HAO staff (Irish and Romanian) began working in Chinese orphanages.

HAO was the only non-government agency in the world to be invited by the Chinese to work on their Children’s National Training programme.

HAO’s practical, no-nonsense approach – which achieved such good results in Romania – now looks likely to have a positive effect on the staff in the institutions, and subsequently the children in the orphanages, in China. – James Dillon

1997 Albania

Three people held down a screaming four-year-old while a doctor took a bone marrow sample. Another person held his mother at the door as she screamed hysterically. In a Dublin hospital, the boy would have had general anaesthetic for the procedure. In the Albanian capital, Tirana, the anaesthetic is non-existent.

James Dillon watched this procedure, in June 1997, during a week-long visit to Tirana’s devastated hospitals. He returned home haunted by one question: how could this be happening in a city less than two hours journey by plane from London?

HAO promptly held a fundraising concert, for the hospitals in Tirana, at Necarne Castle, Co. Fermanagh in 1997. With celebrity guest appearances and a line-up including; Van Morrison, Mary Black and Shane McGowan.

As a result of the concert, HAO sent three 40ft containers of aid (blankets, sheets and medical supplies) to Tirana, in August of 1997. They received assurances from the Italian forces to get the convoy through the country. HAO was one of the few agencies to have an active project in Tirana in 1997.

When visiting one hospital in Albania, James Dillon encountered a child with cancer but the hospital was not equipped to treat it. Upon request from his father – HAO brought the child to Ireland and arranged cancer treatment in Crumlin hospital.

HAO set up a Counselling Service for women in Tirana, in collaboration with Refleksione Association – providing rape crisis counselling and domestic violence support. A professional counsellor was provided to facilitate this training and was based in Tirana for two years. HAO also set up a help-line, which opened on October 12, 1997 and is still running (HAO is no longer involved).

1998 China

HAO had an involvement in China for over 12 years. They initially sent two special education experts to one of the poorest provinces to improve the training of teachers who worked with children with disabilities. The specialists were based at Anshun Teachers’ Training College in Guizhou province, Southern China, for two years, starting March 1998. The aim of the Anshun project was to share skills and build a partnership with Chinese special education experts. HAO also funded doctor and nurse to regularly attend a small orphanage in Guizhou province, and equip a number of the rooms.

This was the first training project in China – undertaken by HAO – which was involved in Romania since 1991 and Albania since 1997.

1999 Fundatia Pentru O Viata Mai Buna (FVB)

HAO founded ‘Fundatia Pentru O Viata Mai Buna’ as the first step in localising their activities in Romania. This eventually became HAO Romania – which is still running today.

HAO Romania began to run their projects without Irish volunteers. They hired and trained Romanian staff to provide local administration and childcare to the children and young adults from Negru Voda and Nicoresti.

2005 Establishment of the first group home

The first group home was established in 2005. HAO moved children from the orphanage in Negru Voda, and relocated them to group homes provided by the State and other charities. HAO’s first group home, Casa James Dillon, catered for eight young adults.

Today they are living independent lives in their own studio apartments provided by HAO.

2005/2006 Opening of Techrighol Institution

Paralell to the move into the first group home, a new project was launched by HAO.

Negru Voda was eventually shut down completely and more suitable accommodation was provided. In 2005, HAO built a new institution; ‘Techrighol’, in Constanta. A number of children from Negru Voda moved into this new premises. This was a major turning point in the work of HAO.

HAO commissioned the Open Training College, in Ireland, to design and deliver bespoke training courses for the staff in Techrighol. In June 2005, Brendan Collins and Ray Watson (current HAO Ireland board members) travelled to Romania with James Dillon. This was a preliminary exercise for them to observe the situation in Techrighol. They then designed the training courses based on their observations on this trip, and tailored them to the requirements of the Romanian staff.

The training courses took place from April – June 2006 and compiled 3 parts;

Part 1 (April): person-centred planning and rights-based models for people with disabilities.

Part 2 (May): soft-skills for staff such as; communication, delegation, conflict management skills etc.).

Part 3 (June): general management.

Lectures were provided throughout the week, supported by customised modules and books (in Romanian). A translator was also provided to aid communication between the Irish trainers and the Romanian staff. All staff were trained to the highest European standards.

This was one of the largest EU-funded training projects at this time. It was ground-breaking in Romania as, up to this point, other projects involved Irish volunteers going out to work in the institutions – instead of Romanian staff learning to do it themselves. The training was enormously successful and the staff continued to utilise their skills after the project concluded.

The aim of the Open Training College was not merely about the training, but also to improve the quality of life for the service-users. This was evident when Brendan and Ray visited Techrighol again, and spent time with the men and women using the service. They were deeply impressed with their work and social lives  – all working or in education, surrounded by family and friends, interacting with neighbours and holding BBQs in their gardens. Their quality of life had already improved drastically. Brendan and Ray became members of the HAO Ireland board of trustees soon after their work on this project.

The work of HAO had never been done before in Romania. It was the model that every other charity used and it acted as a beacon to show that Romanian staff could deliver that care without relying on foreign staff.

2008 Constanta Apartments for Young Adults

HAO then began a process of relocating all the young adults – from the first group home – into their own private apartments. By this stage, the young adults had reached a level of independence whereby; they had passed state exams, they were all in employment, they had their own bank accounts and were able to live an independent life. However, the permanent team of counsellors and childcare workers continued to provide support and assistance; and were available on a daily basis – as the young adults required.

Adrian was the first service-user to move into his own apartment and it was a huge step for him in gaining independence in society. He was involved in the renovations and decorating of his apartment and chose his own paint colours and furniture.

This was the first independent home of eight, provided by HAO. This was the biggest move in supporting people to live independently which was the ultimate goal and mission of HAO from the beginning.

Parallel to this, HAO Romania was set up (a continuation of FVB), and availed of EU funding for more projects which grew the organisation in Romania. This was done successfully with the launch of two large EU projects – which are still running today. HAO Ireland continues to provide funding based on HAO Romania’s requirements.

Kathleen Biggs, the former CEO, was responsible for running the organisation in Romania and greatly improved the profile and work of HAO. Nicolae Dobrescu then took on the role of CEO of HAO Romania and still runs the organisation today. Nico and his team developed the training project and updated it throughout the years in Romania.


HAO Romania began to run everything themselves from Romania, and have achieved incredible work over the last few years. HAO Ireland receive monthly Activity and Project Reports and provide funding and any assistance required by HAO Romania.

2022 Health Action Overseas Romania

From 2018 to present, HAO has supported over 300 disadvantaged people (213 with disabilities) and has become an active part of their local community. 138 young adults have been employed on the open labour market during this time.

HAO Romania is currently implementing three major projects in the South (Eastern) Regions of Romania. These projects focus on supported employment services for people with various types of disabilities.

1. Disabilities – LEAD project

2. Roma – SIR project

3. Young NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) – IntegraNEET project.

HAO Romania also runs two other projects on Erasmus + – which help specialists gain skills in working with people with disabilities and help them to find employment.

HAO Romania continues to support six young adults with disabilities who were de-institutionalised from the Negru Voda Centre in 2002. Our staff deliver social services and individual support; so that the young adults can live as independently as possible within the local community. Five of them live in the studio apartments purposely provided by HAO; and we are currently in the process of buying another studio for the sixth one.

Our staff and volunteers currently work from four various locations:

1. Constanta: Supported Employment Centre & young adults’ apartments.

2. Bucharest: Supported Employment Resource Centre (mainly administration and networking, but also providing supported employment services on request).

3. Medgidia (Constanta county): mainly field activity (Roma), but have staff travelling on a daily basis.

4. Galbinasi (Calarasi county near Bucharest).

Health Action Overseas Ireland Now…

HAO Ireland recently supported Sorin to purchase his own home. Sorin is the final service user from the original group to acquire his own home. This is the tenth home funded by HAO Ireland. Sorin’s new apartment was purchased in Constanta, in December 2022.  Sorin has, for the last few years, been living in one room in an old congregated setting. His new apartment has two rooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. The location is much nearer to his friends and work and is a huge step in improving his quality of life. Sorin, while delighted to have moved to a home of his own, already has eyes on improving the apartment and decorating and furnishing it to his liking. 

HAO Ireland visited Romania in March 2023 – the first trip possible since COVID-19. The board visited each of the apartments and met with all the service-users and the staff of HAO Romania. It was an incredible experience to spend time with the boys, to see how far they have come in life and how happy they are in their own homes.