'I always say that my life began again in 1988 because that's when Jesus gave me a new heart.'
Ann Hobbs was only forty-six years old when she had not one, but two, heart attacks. Although she wasn't frightened about dying, Ann had four children. The youngest was only eight. She also felt convinced that God had a purpose for her.
The first thing that happened was that Ann received prayer for healing. She was given a verse from Ezekiel: 'A new heart I put within you - and a new spirit.' Four weeks later her Consultant, who was planning to operate, tested her vigorously before deducting that there was nothing wrong with her heart, adding that he wished that his was as strong. 'Something has happened since I last saw you!' he declared.
A year later, fit and restored to full health, Ann found herself driving to Romania in a converted bread-van. It took three days, often travelling on dangerous mountain roads. After facing aggressive border officials, who kept them waiting another day, they finally drove into Romania. It was the start of an adventure that was to last twenty-five years.
'We smelt it from the gates.' Ann and her team made their way past security guards with dogs to visit a state orphanage, a bleak place surrounded by a high iron fence. Having negotiated with the director in an office thick with cigarette smoke they were taken to see the children. It broke her heart. The rooms were dirty and bedding sparse. Little children with shaved heads rocked silently on stinking mattresses. There were 120 living there and yet no toilet was working. 'We returned the next morning to get every child washed. It took all day but we gave each one a set of new clothing with socks and shoes. Their own clothes were so far gone we had to burn them.' Conditions at another orphanage were worse. They found one person looking after 200 babies in one room. None of them wore nappies.
Ann returned to England determined to do all she could for the neglected children. Her Romanian friends had no knowledge of what had been going on. She felt that if they joined forces and went into the orphanages consistently, things would improve. 'Step by Step' became her moto. Before long she had set up a charity shop and started receiving donations. 'We kept the best items to take to Romania and sold the rest to raise funds.' She bought a 6.5 ton lorry and, with a team of volunteers, drove across Europe with everything the children might need from nappies to flat-pack furniture. Soon lives were being transformed.
Over the years Ann started up three different charity shops and a warehouse in the UK, drawing on the retail training she had been given as a girl by Marks & Spencers. She had a team of sixteen volunteers at one stage, and ran a cafe as well as a nearly-new shop. Three times a year she would travel to Romania, re-equipping the orphanages from top to bottom. 'We gained access to all areas, which was a miracle.'
Ann has looked after the children as they have grown up, giving to them as she gives to her own. 'We've put some of the children through university, we've had weddings - it's all been very special. I don't like travelling, I don't like heat and can't stand flies but we have had great fun.' Four Romanian choirs have come back to sing in England and children have come over to take part in youth camps. 'The support from churches in the UK has been amazing.'
Mission to Romania is no longer a UK registered charity but it still helps to support to about 500 children and young people. 'Some have parents in prison, some were dumped as babies. One little boy was dropped from a balcony and was severely injured but he responded to treatment and is as bright as a button.' Ann has kept travelling, taking equipment to four orphanages as well youth remand centres across the country, visiting the churches that support them along the way. She usually travels about 6,000 miles on each visit, often ending up working at a state prison for 15-18 year old boys. 'They could have done anything from rape to murder but they all need loving and the word of God.'
Ann's message is that if God tells you to do something - do it. He'll direct you and show you how. With God all things are possible. 'However, if it's just a good idea of your own - don't go there! You won't have the strength to sustain it.'
Ann loves taking Christmas to Romania. 'We usually take craft projects as it enables us to get close to the children and bring out their creativity. It's a ministry of encouragement,' explained the lady who so very nearly died and yet has brought life to many.
Ann Hobbs ~ Mission Romania, 22 Fir Avenue, New Milton, Hampshire BH25 6EU