John Upton remembers the place called the Institute for the Unsalvageables.
He can still see the hundreds of orphaned children who each day are herded half-naked onto a urine-covered floor in a room with no heat. He sees their faces, sees their eyes calling out to him, their mouths contorted in confusion.
And the smells of the place are still so strong, he says, he can almost taste them.
The images Upton carries from a recent visit to a Romanian orphanage aren't confined to memory. The award-winning filmmaker has them committed to videotape--taken with a hand-held camera he carried by his side.
And now the 34-year-old Encinitas man is playing the video at his Olivenhain home for couples interested in adopting a physically limited Romanian child--boys and girls with Down's syndrome, dwarfism, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.
This is a story about a man who saw a network news show about children suffering in some faraway place and didn't just turn off the set when the broadcast was through. He went to Romania.
Within four days of seeing an October segment of ABC's "20/20," Upton was in Bucharest meeting with Communist government officials to see about gaining the release of a group of children he admits stole his heart.
"Being a television producer, you learn pretty quick how to get to the bottom of things real fast," said Upton, who this year won an Emmy Award for an after-school special on teen-age promiscuity.
"There just wasn't any doubt in my mind that I could do something, that I could make a difference with these kids. But I didn't waste much time thinking about it. I just went."
And now, after spending more than five weeks in the Eastern European country, sorting through reams of red tape and countless setbacks, Upton has already secured homes for five Romanian orphans.
Beginning next spring, he will bring back to Southern California what he hopes will be scores more children--while he helps them begin their search for new American homes.
In less than two months, the father of three has become a one-man American clearinghouse for handicapped Romanian orphans. And Upton says he will take a one-year hiatus from filmmaking to continue his work--while he sees just how many children he can rescue from a system he says has given up on them.
The scenes he plays out now have characters like Elena Rosta, a 12-year-old girl whose deformed leg juts out almost backward so that her toes point toward her head. And 15-year-old Anna Ostos, an autistic blind girl who longs to sing a song with her hero--Stevie Wonder.
There's Isador, the little boy with the crooked leg who pulled on Upton's sleeve at the orphanage and pleaded, "Take me to America." And there's a 20-year-old dwarf who has been confined to a bed all his life.
For years, they were nobody's children.
"There he is, he's my main man," Upton said of the dwarf child Monday morning as he watched his videotape in a neighbor's living room. "I'm just going to work on this project for as long as I can so I can get a kid like this a home, get him out of his crib. So he can have a life."
Upton's 6,000-mile journey, he admits, began as a quest for Elena.
One Friday night in October, while writing the scripts for a new television project, he and his wife, Suzanne, saw a network news special about conditions in Romanian orphanages.
Upton recalls being speechless as he watched. He paced the floor as he saw images of little Elena, who dragged her deformed body across a dirty floor and who flinched on-camera as a nurse hovered over her.
"My wife just looked at me and said, 'You're going, aren't you?' I said, 'Yes I am.' I was ready to do anything to get that little girl out of there, even if I had to adopt her myself."
The following morning, Upton was at the Encinitas home of Dr. Roger Schmitt, chief of orthopedics at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. The physician reviewed a tape of the program and said he could repair the girl's leg.
On Monday--armed with a letter from Schmitt and a local dentist who vowed to perform free dental work on the child--he was on a plane for Bucharest.
Upton admits having preconceived notions of the Eastern Bloc country that only months before had liberated itself from dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. And that notion was wrong.
"I went in there with the attitude of the angry American, someone who was going to set right the wrongs he found," Upton recalled. "I expected heartless officials and corruption. But that's not what I found at all. I found people who wanted to act but were handicapped by a lack of resources."
He recalled interviewing the president of a Romanian television company, asking why there hadn't already been an expose about orphanage conditions. The executive showed Upton evidence that there was indeed such a project in the works.
But the work took time, Upton was told. After all, there was only one camera for the station's coverage of the entire country.