`Angel’ of the orphanage
Many locals will take vacations this off-season that are more adventurous or exotic than Dorothy Nielsen’s, but none will be more rewarding.
Nielsen left Sept. 30 for Cimpulung, Romania, where she will provide her undivided attention for about one month to children in an orphanage. This is her fourth month-long trip to the same orphanage in two and a half years.
The Basalt resident first became interested in 1997 when she heard a minister talking about desperate conditions in war-torn Romania, and the needs of the children in particular.
“He said, `We need doctors.’ I’m not a doctor,” said Nielsen. “He said, `We need nurses.’ I’m not a nurse. He said, `We need money.’ I have no money. He said, `We need a hand.’ I’ve got two of those.”
An acquaintance put Nielsen in touch with an adoption agency that’s active in Eastern Europe. Although she’s not involved with adoptions, she volunteered to help in an out-of-the-way orphanage where Westerners typically don’t go.
She ended up in Cimpulung, a town tucked into the Carpathian Mountains, three and a half hours from Bucharest and one and a half hours from Transylvania.
On each of her trips, she devotes several hours each day to playing with and caring for children, mostly toddlers. While the staff at the institution does the best it can, there is little time for playing or cuddling with the kids.
Nielsen said she’s found that simply removing the kids from their cribs and letting them crawl around the floor with her has proved therapeutic for them.
As a single parent who raised two daughters, Nielsen didn’t have time to volunteer until the late 1990s. Her job at Aspen Base Operations, which handles private aircraft flights coming into Pitkin County Airport, provides her with time for volunteering during spring and fall off-seasons.
“When people ask me why I do it I want to ask them, `Why not?’ ” she said. “I feel very fortunate and I want to share that with other people. Kindness is how we pay rent here on Earth.”
But Nielsen – who has a sense of humor that shines through even in her first encounter with a stranger – isn’t taking a holier-than-thou attitude. She jokes that being a good Samaritan is her way of making up for “being so damn bad my first 20 years.”
She’s making it up fast.
Staff members at the orphanage doubted they would see Nielsen after that first trip, but she returns in the off-season whenever possible. Not even a nasty bout with typhoid fever on her second trip has changed her plans.
Nielsen views her trips more as a goodwill effort by Basalt as a whole than by her as an individual. She’s held fund-raising parties to collect medicine, clothing and toys before each trip, drawing on the help of numerous individuals and businesses, such as Bistro Basalt and Basalt Pharmacy.
“It’s everybody together,” she said. “I just happen to be the person delivering.”
Her work has caught the eyes of others.
Kim Menard, director of the American-International Children’s Alliance, wrote to friends of Nielsen’s last year that many children in the orphanage “blossomed” in her care. They clamored for her attention and interaction, which may have enhanced their development.
“Dorothy was called the `angel’ of the orphanage,” Menard wrote.
Menard’s letter made its way to U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, earlier this year, and on Sept. 8 he read a tribute to her on the House floor.
“Mr. Speaker, I would like to take a moment to recognize a truly incredible woman,” McInnis’ tribute started. “For the last two years, Dorothy Nielsen has embodied a true spirit of charity.”
The congressman outlined some of her deeds and closed by saying, “I feel that, as her fellow citizens, we owe her a great debt of gratitude.”
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In April, the W Aspen Townie Food Truck (formerly called the Bitsy Trailer) made its debut as a curbside addition to the hotel set up to feed first responders and locals during the hotel’s “Safer at Home” pause.