In a setting where the tiniest increment of student progress is celebrated, the staff of Jordan Valley School has cause to commemorate a milestone.

Classroom assistant Mariana Popescu and her husband, Daniel, were sworn in as new U.S. citizens in a ceremony in U.S. District Court this month. The Romanian couple's quest of 17 years was finally realized.The staff of a Jordan District school that serves students with disabilities made sure the Popescus' first day as Americans was one to remember.

The school lunchroom was festooned with red, white and blue balloons and streamers. A Utah Air National Guard color guard presented the Utah and U.S. flags. Teachers and staff, dressed in the colors of the flag, waved small American flags, sang patriotic songs and shared a cake decorated as an American flag.

The Popescus received a flag that has flown over the U.S. Capitol, and Mariana Popescu was given a hat and a U.S.A. T-shirt.

"I love you guys. You are the best and I love America. God bless America," said Mariana Popescu, responding to the outpouring.

She has worked at Jordan Valley School for five years, now assigned to students who are severely disabled and medically fragile.

The Popescus were still living in Romania when they first learned of the school from an American physician visiting the country on a humanitarian visit.

Their daughter, Ramona, is autistic. The family knew she needed special services, but the Romanian government did not provide them. Children with disabilities were warehoused. Families who elected to take care of their own children kept them in hiding.

"In Romania, you don't even hear of handicapped kids," said Daniel Popescu. "It's all behind closed doors."

The family spent nine years attempting to obtain a passport.

In 1990, they fled the country as political refugees. They left with their daughters Ramona, Iris, then 6 months old, and three suitcases.

They left behind a lifetime of personal belongings, including cherished family photographs.

"I could not even bring samples of my work," said Daniel Popescu, an architect. "They were considered secrets of state."

Daniel Popescu said he was considered a spy because he had relatives in the United States.

Upon arriving in America, the Popescus were sponsored by a Utah family, who also had fled Romania.

The family eventually settled in a house across the street from Jordan Valley School. Ramona enrolled in the school shortly thereafter.

The family who came to America with little more than their clothes now owns a home, automobiles and a boat.

"We have a nice life. We have worked hard," said Daniel Popescu, who works for Kevin Watts Architects-Planners.

Except for the staff training she receives every two weeks at Jordan Valley School, Mariana Popescu has no university training to work with disabled children. Many of the severely disabled children cannot speak, but Mariana Popescu appears to have an innate sense what they need, said Principal John Gardner.

As each child in her care leaves the school for the day, she plants a lipstick-laden kiss on his cheek or forehead.

"How wonderful it must must feel, if you had a child here and you knew someone here loves him that much," Gardner said.

Popescu says she does love the students.

"I look at all the things people have done for my daughter and how kind they have been to her. I have this feeling for these kids. They're my kids."