Twenty years ago, British missionary Kevin Hoy came to Romania to help these newly freed people with food and medicine. With a cry to God, Romanians had risen up and defeated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his communist regime, in December 1989.
Days after "Revolution Square" grew quiet, Hoy arrived with plans to hand out food, medicine, and school supplies, then head back home. But at the end of his trip, the former accountant and talent manage said he felt compelled to stay.
"What struck me as I traveled the schools, the orphanages, and the hospitals back then was the desperate lack of smiles among the children," Hoy recalled. "I have seen too many desperate parts of the world and normally there are smiles and laughter amongst the children. (It's) often because they don't realize the seriousness of the situation around them."
"Here in Romania, it struck me the children didn't smile," he said. "And over the time I was here I came to realize they didn't know how to smile. They had had nothing to smile about."
Giving Romania Hope
The somber faces led Hoy to start The Smiles Foundation, a ministry aimed at helping Romanians living in poverty.
CBN News traveled with one of the group's social workers as he delivered food to Adrianna Adi.
Adi's husband abandoned her and their two children. She and her sons now share one room in a social housing project. Adi's 7-year-old son has nightmares about losing his mom and becoming an orphan.
"I have been working for the past year and a half with families, with homeless people and I can testify to people not smiling, turning to people that are smiling," said Marian Zaharia, who works for the Smiles Foundation's ministry to Romania's gypsy population.
After 20 years, The Smiles Foundation now includes a mission's center to bring in teams like Regent University's Center for Trauma Studies, a wheelchair tennis team, and a farm to feed people in need and help fund the charity.
The Smiles Foundation's largest project is in the Tileagd gypsy village.
"Over the last 10 years, crime within the gypsy community has dropped 50 percent," Hoy said. "Those statistics can't be overlooked as chance."
Smiles began working in the village after Hoy met resident Lady Anna and her grandson Victor. The 10-year-old was begging on the streets when Hoy invited him to dinner.
"Over the two hours, we learned a lot about his community, his family," Hoy said. "And he ended up taking us back to meet his mom and dad and his eight brothers and sisters."
Years later, Victor now lives with his own daughter and works for The Smiles Foundation. That relationship has helped to provide the Tileagd gypsy village with running water, a neighborhood store, church and school.
"Through education, they've been able to learn about a God that loves them," Hoy said. "A God who has a plan and a purpose for each of their lives and it has been thrilling just to share in that truth."
Reasons to Smile, Sing
Truth trumps years of negative headlines, stereotypes, and the racism many gypsies still experience today.
"It is an incredible feeling to see that people that used to be hopeless and terrified for their lives and not having a future in front of them, turning and becoming people that will be able to help the others in the community," Zaharia said.
Children from the Tileagd Village are also spreading the message. They've formed a choir and traveled throughout Europe and America helping raise money for the foundation's work.
"The choir is a prime example, where given the opportunity, they have truly excelled beyond their wildest dreams," Hoy explained. "I remember 10 years ago asking them what their dreams were and they asked me, 'What is a dream?'"
Hoy is working in other gypsy villages as well, and hopes a revival will soon spread as it did for the people of Tileagd.
*Original broadcast November 2, 2010.