Kathryn (Kat) Dinkelacker, an Ongoing Case Manager at SaintA, spent two and a half years in a Romanian orphanage. The horrible conditions and deprivation she suffered as a very young child became the basis for her life’s goal: to help other children who have experienced trauma.
“I don’t think people take into consideration the effects of trauma,” she said, while calmly recounting her life story. “I suffered rejection and abuse, but my past really takes me a step back, so I can really think about each child I work with. When I talk to a child, I can relate to them, and I can honestly say, I know how you feel.”
Kat was born in Romania in July of 1989. Five months later, that country’s brutal Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed. During his 22-year rule, birth control and abortion were banned, and women were pressured to have children to provide the country with workers and fighters. After the overthrow and the unraveling of the nation, as with many other women, Kat’s birth mother could not provide for her and put her into an orphanage. She was 9 months old.
In 1990, the world learned about the orphanages, where thousands of children were left in abject squalor, often abused, and not cuddled or even touched on a regular basis. Americans were appalled, and many rushed to adopt these children. Kat was one of the lucky ones. A couple from Pennsylvania paid to have her removed from the orphanage and put into foster care for three months. They adopted her when she was almost 4 years old.
Kat has recurring dreams about being in a crib with multiple babies crying, and she remembers experiencing culture shock when she got to the United States. She was malnourished, and because she was used to not eating much, could not eat a lot of food at any one time without getting sick. She remembers not knowing what anyone around her was saying.
But her adoptive parents brought her to a quiet life, on an Amish farm in Lancaster, Pa. Although they had a daughter, she was about eight years older, so Kat in many ways grew up as an only child.
“I loved it,” Kat said. “It was simple and peaceful.”
She started therapy at age 9, and had great fondness for her therapist. With her, Kat began to address her past: her attachment issues, her feelings of being out of place, and having no answers as to why her birth mother gave her up, particularly because she knew from a document her adoptive parents had been given that she had a biological sister whom her mother had kept.
Then when she was 12, everything was turned upside down again. Her dad, with whom she had always been close, left her mother. Custody was split, and Kat chose to go to middle and high school where her dad lived – with a woman he married who had two children of her own. Kat says the woman did not like her and made her life miserable. For a time, Kat was estranged from her dad’s extended family, and that being cut off hurt a lot.
Eventually, years passed, and it was time for Kat to go to college. She enrolled in a private university and studied nursing for two years.
“Then I hit microbiology; I got a C-minus.”
Kat had the option to retake the class or try another major. She hated the class so much that she switched to a criminal justice program, primarily because most of her science credits would transfer.
“I ended up loving it … and I worked my butt off.”
Through an internship at a prison, she learned how to assert herself.
“They knew that I would set them straight if they got out of line,” she said with a laugh.
But the biggest change in her life occurred in 2011, when she and her adoptive mother traveled to Romania with other adoptive families through a program that helps arrange visits with birth families.
“I had been searching for my birth family for 15 years, and all I got were dead ends. Then the day we were supposed to fly to Romania, our flight got cancelled. I’m cranky. I’m miserable. I’m mad, and it’s a nine or ten hour flight.”
When she ended up in Bucharest, the people from the program told her that her birth family had been found.
“I really think God cancelled that flight on purpose! During the delay, the group did one last thing to locate them.”
But it wasn’t until the last day of the trip that Kat and her mom were able to travel to the small village where her birth family lives. The group had e-mailed pictures to Kat and warned her that the place was very poor.
None of that mattered when she saw her birth mother.
“We pulled up and she ran out. The second she threw her arms around me, we both started crying.”
With the help of a translator, Kat learned that she has seven siblings and that her birth mother had to give her up when she could no longer breast feed her, because she was destitute. “She had absolutely nothing.
“I felt guilty,” Kat said. “I’m living a life with food, shelter, everything I could need. And here’s my other family, with no electricity, no running water, not knowing where their next meal will come from. But somehow they don’t complain about anything!”
Kat said that while growing up, she had been ashamed of being adopted. She was teased at school as “the orphan girl.” And it made her sad when others talked about family resemblances, which she didn’t have.
“Once I met my birth family and saw their living conditions, it absolutely changed my mind. I was so grateful for being adopted.”
Her adoptive mother shared pictures with her birth mother, who brought out two photos she had of Kat as a baby.
“How selfless she was! The only two pictures she had, she gave to my mom! And she held my hand the whole time and gave me lots of kisses. And just to see my birth mom and my mom hug and kiss was the best moment ever.”
Kat’s next big life change occurred when she traveled to Milwaukee to visit a friend from the Romanian orphans group. She met a man and ended up moving here. She got a job as a placement specialist with Professional Services Group and then found her current job at SaintA.
“I came into social work by accident, but I always had a dream of working with kids with backgrounds similar to mine.”
She said she looks to her past when working with children in the child welfare system.
“A foster parent might think the child is bad, but we have to ask, why is he doing what he’s doing?
“I know I wasn’t the easiest child, and I felt alone a lot of the time … but I remember my therapist I had when I was 9. I’ll never forget the time she took to help me understand why I am the way I am.
“I think we (at SaintA) can help other kids like this if given a chance.”
Kat hopes to get a master’s degree and go into some kind of counseling in the future.
“I really want to be able to help those who’ve been in my shoes. I want to give back for what I didn’t have.”
Kat has accepted her past, she said, and she makes an effort to keep in touch with her birth mother.
“I still have those ‘why me?’ days. Everyone has questions, and you’ll never be 100% happy with your past. No one has a perfect life, but you have to make the most of it.”
Making the most of it for Kat includes having helped to form an adoption support group in Pennsylvania and appearing in a documentary that aired in Romania last year on the orphans situation. She’s also an ambassador to a company called Roma Boots, which is run by a Romanian, that provides a free pair of boots to a child living in poverty for every pair that is sold.
“We need to get the word out about what happened and how these things affect people’s lives. We’re starting to get the word out. And that makes me glad.”