A few months later, in 1991, Forward took his first trip to Romania, delivering two and one-half tons of donated clothing and toys. But he realized then that the needs he saw depicted on television paled in comparison to the reality. The Romanians had overthrown and executed the brutal Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu just two years earlier, and the country’s economy was floundering. Many parents were unable to provide for their children.
Today, Forward vividly recalls his feelings as he flew home from his first visit. “Those children were no longer statistics to me. They were real children with real names and real smiles. It was impossible to get on the plane and say, ‘OK. Been there. Done that. What’s next?’”
A successful real estate salesperson and author who had published a book on volunteerism, Forward immediately began setting up the organization that became the International Children’s Aid Foundation.
The fledgling organization embarked on a series of mission trips, bringing volunteers to Romania to help deliver food, clothing, and medical supplies. Since then, Forward has escorted volunteers on more than 60 trips. He has brought doctors, dentists, physical therapists, and teachers to apply their skills to the children’s crushing needs.
ICAF soon opened Casa Emanuel, which one Romanian official called “the finest example of child care in the country,” Forward recalls. To help more children, Forward and ICAF developed Bright Beginnings, a program that provides early childhood development training for Romanian caregivers in state-run facilities. Currently, ICAF helps about 200 children.
Another ICAF program, Bright Futures, provides job training and life skills classes for teenage street kids and orphans, who are released from state care at age 18.
“Those coming out of the state orphanages have a bad reputation and few if any marketable skills. Employers feel they will be disorderly thieves,” says Laurence Miller, an ICAF board member. “David decided that the children need to be trained in practical ways to enable them to find jobs when they leave.”
So Forward launched a screen-printing factory where teenagers and young adults design, manufacture, and market clothing. He learned the techniques himself so that he could teach the kids, bought a building, got equipment donated, and negotiated free shipping. In addition to providing jobs and training, the business brings in a small income stream to help support Casa Emanuel.
Forward has even set up a medical clinic and a dental clinic that serve not just the orphans but the entire town. He and other volunteers obtain outdated but still serviceable medical equipment from the United States and Europe and negotiate free shipping to Romania, where the equipment is considered state of the art. The dental clinic, for example, has the only X-ray machine within 40 miles. Forward and ICAF recruit volunteer medical professionals to go to Romania—at their own expense—to teach and provide medical care.
“You can’t heal someone’s spirit if the body needs healing as well,” says Forward.
“The heart of David’s message is that every life is precious,” says Richard Carter, pastor of Faith United Presbyterian Church, whose congregation contributes funds, supplies, and volunteers to ICAF. “When he talks about the children, his voice cracks because he’s come to have a very personal relationship with them.”
Like most private foundations, ICAF, which operates on a budget of about $250,000 a year, survives on donations, much of the money raised by Forward himself. Contributors can sponsor portions of its programs; for example, $25 a month sponsors a Casa Emanuel child. But even more than financial contributions, ICAF seeks volunteers, Forward says. “We want people who believe, as we do, in the power that one person has to make a difference. When you bring people like that together, it’s positively amazing what can happen.”