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By Kati Ellis    

About twelve years ago, I went with a journalist/friend of mine to Romania to do a story on the kids that lived down in the sewer systems in Bucharest. We had received a grant from the photography program where I went to college and we were ready to change the world.

I was young, and my Dad’s oldest daughter, so naturally he wanted to come check out what I was getting myself into (really I can hardly blame him, two young girls heading off to the unknown. Plus, he knows I’ll do just about anything for the sake of a good photograph).

We arrived, found our apartment, ate at this Italian restaurant (an accident- we thought it was Romanian at first) that didn’t have any tomatoes left and so could only feed us one or two things on the menu, and then settled down for the night.

The next day we met up with a contact we had who ran an orphanage/shelter program in Bucharest. He introduced us to a man named Alin. He said Alin was our guy, and he wasn’t wrong.  He lived on the streets and knew all the homeless people. He was our ticket in to every sewer or gypsy community around. He spoke all of 35 english words and yet had zero problem communicating with us, had a gigantic scar across his neck he got from a guy in the sewer trying to steal a phone he had, and had countless missing teeth. He seemed like the jackpot in Romanian homeless tour guides.  

I had no idea how priceless this man would actually be.

Our first night, Alin brought us to a manhole off  a subway stop. He encouraged us to get some food to bring, you know, to break the ice, so we picked up a bunch of shawarmas from the street vendor below our apartment and set out. I was a little nervous, I won’t lie. All of my big plans to change the world felt a little daunting as I put my camera into a super grungy shoulder bag so as not to attract any attention to it.  

When we got there, there were kids spattered throughout the dead grass surrounding the sewer entrance. Most of them were holding grocery bags filled with silver paint and glue- they sniff it. The high kills the hunger pains. We timidly walked up and handed a few of them dinner and before we knew it, our bags of shawarmas were depleted as they gathered around us. Not a word was said, which was really alright since I didn’t speak any Romanian, but there seemed to be an understanding now. Eventually one of the boys motioned us toward their man hole and climbed down. My dad, wearing a black short sleeve shirt and a Rolex watch was stopped by Alin before he headed down the ladder. He pulled him aside and motioned to my dad’s shortsleeves and then back to his longer sleeves. He said in his extremely limited english “give me your watch. I’ll keep it safe.”

My dad,  the ever trusting man, handed him his Rolex and watched as Alin put it on his wrist and tucked it under his shirt.

We headed down the ladder.  

Now, when I wanted to do this project, I was not at all prepared for the story I would be telling. Not even a little. I really don’t even know what I was expecting, to be honest. I do know, however, that I wasn’t expecting to climb into the dirtiest, smelliest, hottest looking living space? I’d ever seen. The sewage pipes ran through the top of the entrance so the area they made their home was nice and hot (a relief in the winter, but not so much in the summer while we were there). They had, and I honestly have no idea how, stuffed a couple of mattresses down the hole, as well as carried a tv and a tv stand down. It didn’t plug in to anything, so it didn’t work, but it looked like a living room and that seemed to make it feel like home to them.

How is it that people live down here? How it is that I was born into a pretty little home with a front door and a backyard and a car that drove to the grocery store and these children were born to a life with a discarded, filthy mattress on the ground and the smell of sewer to help them sleep at night?

I honestly don’t know. I really don’t. But I’ve got to think that if I don’t have to struggle to find food and shelter than I sure better struggle to help find it for others.

Alin showed us around a little, and I took maybe four pictures before I realized I was way out of my league as far as storytelling and documentary photography go. It was crazy dark down there and for any of you that know a bit about photography- I was desperate for an outside light source of some kin). I mostly just stood next to the mattress, asked a little about the tv, and felt awkward and intrusive, standing there with my camera while they just looked at us. All the while, Alin kept my dad’s watch neatly tucked under his long sleeve, talking with the people.

We climbed out and I felt sick to my stomach- just heartbroken and sad, really really sad. This was Alin’s life. This is how he lived from day to day. This was it for him, I thought.

But I was wrong. There was so much more to him.

As we said goodbye to Alin and turned to head back to our apartment, we heard him shouting to come back. He ran up to us, my dad’s watch outstretched in his hand, “don’t forget your watch.”

Now I don’t know about you, but to me, this seemed like the greatest act of selflessness and honesty of all time. He could have walked away with it no problem. He could have paid for an apartment to rent for a couple of months, could have traded in the occasional meal for three meals a day, could have bought himself a pair of underwear instead of the swimsuit he wore under his pants for showers in the river. He could have lived like a king compared to the life he had now. But he didn’t. He gave it right back like it was nothing. Like it wasn’t even the most money he possibly had ever held in his life.  Wouldn’t it have just been so much easier if he’d kept it? I mean if you think about it– we wouldn’t have known where to find him. My dad would have gone home to a beautiful home and a life with a job and food and worked to get another one, and he would have a full belly.

I really think it may have been easier to just be dishonest this one time.

So why wasn’t he? I never asked him.

Over the next couple months, Alin became our bodyguard/tour guide/way into the communities with the best stories. We paid him weekly, which he always blew on the first day- feeding as many as he could when he wasn’t helping us. We found ourselves giving him more and doing our best to give all we could to his causes as well. He saved my life and the life of my camera once as a brawl threatened to breakout over a picture I took, only to find himself needing our protection from the authorities he’d called, because of the way he looked (his skin was dark- a gypsy- and the police automatically assumed the worst of him). He came to church with us. He was an honest, giving, hardworking man.

A couple weeks before we left, Alin and I were sitting in a church building. We had grown to trust him with our lives, quite literally at times, and he had become more than just a tour guide, but something more like a friend. As we sat one Sunday afternoon he said in his now 50 word english vocabulary “I think that in life we walk on a small road and if we stay on that road there is so much candy at the end for us and it is so beautiful. If we don’t, though, there isn’t any candy.” Now I don’t know if he had learned some of that at church with us (the whole service was in Romanian so we hardly understood a word) or if this is something that he grew up believing in, but I’d say he is dead on in life.

“Pray for the strength to walk the high road, which at times may be lonely but which will lead to peace and happiness and joy supernal.”
– Gordan B. Hinkley

Maybe that’s the reason why he chose to give back the watch or why he chose to use all the money we gave him for the week on a meal for a family of 5 living in a 6 by 19 ft box of an apartment. Or maybe it’s the reason he would gather little kids wandering the streets and take them to orphanages until he found one that would take them. He was on that road.  

Now fast forward twelve years. I am in California. My husband, receives a call from Romania, much like the calls he has received periodically throughout the past ten years. Alin needs help. He needs medication for his heart and he can’t afford it. He sends the pictures of the medication, he facetimes at the hospital (amazing the way technology can connect us all, isn’t it?). He gives us exact numbers and a chance to talk to the doctor if we need more information because his English still only consists of maybe a 100 words.

We send the money.

Alin’s road has been tough. Since I’ve left Romania, he has been in a car accident, a near fatal construction accident while he was working on a job site, and battles major heart troubles. But I think if you asked him, he’d tell you that his life has been blessed as well. His kindness to others. His choice to always do the right thing, even when it seemed to us like the hardest thing, has lead him to people all along the way that have helped him. And not just us. Sure, we send money whenever we can. We pay for surgeries or medication when needed, but for the first time in a long time, he is living with a roof over his head because of a friend he made much the same way.

He has lead a life of honesty, hard work, service and gratitude regardless of his circumstances. That watch would have lasted a few months, but that choice lasted his lifetime.

I think about this story a lot. I think about Alin’s example a lot. I think about how often it seems easier for me to just take the watch– to just sleep in a little longer instead of get up to read my scriptures, to lose patience with my kids instead of being kind and loving, to skip my prayers at night because I’m exhausted. I think of how often it would just be easier, and certainly more relaxing at times, to take my kids to the beach and let them roam then hall them to church where we leave cracker crumbs smooshed into the pews and teachers pulling their hair out because they are rowdy as all get out. I think of how it could be easier, so much easier.

But would it really be?

Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.
-Malachi 3:10

Maybe it seems easier in that moment. But what about the years of help that Alin has received from the people who have been honored to know him and his honesty? What about the small miracles I’ve received when I’ve heard my children say that they know that the scriptures are true. What about the times when I’ve felt the love of my Savior so strongly as I’ve cried in my prayers because he has felt every pain I feel and every mistake I‘ve made.

Maybe remembering those moments, the moments when God has blessed our righteous efforts, however small and difficult they may be, will help remind us that making the hard choices in life are worth it. They are worth it every single time.

This road is rough. The climb is steep. The temptation to throw in the towel in our efforts to do what’s right is powerful. But I have faith. Faith that there is a lot of candy at the end of the road and it is so beautiful.  God did not fail to bless Alin and He will not fail to bless us. When we make the hard choices, when we glorify Him in all our actions, “then shall the earth yield her increase and God, even our own God, shall bless us.” Psalms 67:7


  1. Absolutely love this story and your soul!

    • Thank you! My soul loves you!

  2. Do you have any pictures of Alin? I would love to see some of your favorite pictures from this journey!!

    • I do! I’ll post them someday soon (Hard drive troubles!)

  3. Aaaaand I’m a blubbering mess. This was so beautiful, Kati! Thank you for sharing this story. I second Jacki – I’d love to see pictures of Alin!

  4. Kati, thank you for sharing. It was an honor to meet you and know you. I hope we meet again soon.

  5. I am astonished at this experience and your depth of commitment. It is a supreme story. I am inspired. I love you!

    • Thank you! Thank you for reading and supporting and being a part of this community. Love you!

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