Part I: The children
This is the story of several children who can attend kindergarten. They have this possibility due to the fact that people like the pioneers at OvidiuRo and their donors exist. Specialists have reached a consensus: early education is the all-important key vault for durability.
It was the 16th of July 1999, the day when John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr, his wife and his wife’s older sister were killed in an air crash. Two days later, on a Monday morning, in a New York subway station, a forty-seven year old Leslie Hawke was contemplating upon the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr, and further on, her own life. This woman, comfortably set in the American middle class, had a son, and her son was already a grown man, a father himself, he was famous and rich. It’s quite something, she said to herself. But it wasn’t enough.
In Romania,in Drumul Taberei- a Bucharest neighborhood, Maria Gheorghiu, a teacher, imagines herself, for a moment, being aboard a ship that actually goes somewhere.
At the end of the 70’s, two young women, one from Texas, the other from Puerto Rico, see people begging in Madrid, Spain. Something trembles in the heart of the young woman from Texas.
In northern Germany, a man with a very articulated financial plan offsets the anniversary of a mature age in favour of the sole game-free weekend of the Brazil World Championship.
A mother from Buhusi sends her children- all being up to ten years old- out to beg. In the United States of America, a Frenchman realizes he is just praising Romania.
On the road leading to Clinceni, a young man, with a degree in mathematics from Princeton, is driving a Clio. The radio says some phrases that make him slow down, almost without realizing it.
A woman who is on her way back from a scholarship in Berlin, has a road accident- several Rromas want to take some money from her. Somewhere near Brasov, twelve people, ten of them being children, jostle in a six square metre wooden housing.
Two women, Leslie Hawke and Maria Gheorghiu, miraculously find each other online at the same, at the dawns of the third millennium. An NGO is founded at Bacau.
At Fundeni, a child with a brainstem tumour dies. A beautiful girl, pregnant with her fifth child, lies on a bed. She is ten lei (Romanian national currency.) short for an abortion. Doctors recommended an abortion. The beautiful girl weighs 30 kilograms and has blue eyes.
A twenty nine year old girl receives a diploma and gives simple thanks.
A Romanian entrepreneur builds-up a phrase and posts it on Facebook. A famous Hollywood actress sells a purse. A Romanian millionaire buys it. A child is baptized under the name Colorado.
Everything is miraculously connected. Everything makes sense.
Final destination for philanthropists’ money
It wasn’t even mid-April 2014, when, during a pouring rain much alike the late Noah’s of the Old Testament, in a Rroma hamlet near Brasov, a fellow in a pretty shabby Dacia (Romanian brand of cars) passes us by a close shave, puts his head out the window, yells “Cheeeeeeeeers!” and disappears from this story. “Cheers, mate”, we tell him.
We are in Budila Rroma neighborhood. They are many. Statistics show they are close to reaching seventy percent of the settlement’s four thousand population. These are unofficial statistics, running parallel to the official ones, as Rromas don’t declare their ethnicity. If we are to follow the last census, there were, in all, three hundred Rromas in Budesti. Well, no.
We are here for a census of the children who could enter the “ Every child in kindergarten” program, developed by OvidiuRo organisation. In the following months we are to come back several times in Budila, Brasov, between and beyond the limits of this written press article. We might just have found something more here.
The situation is like this: before 1989, Rromas had jobs, especially in Brasov, in the city’s factories, especially “Tractorul”, in sanitation. During the transition, these jobs disappeared, while the number of members in the community continued growing. Twenty five years later we are here: school abandonment has increased, and in Budila the people over fifty years old are more educated than their children and grandsons together.
It is raining. We are entering the town hall. The town hall is in fact a castle, built in brick in the year 1731 AD by the Hungarian count Beldy Laszlo, whose descendants lived here till last century’s 40’s. The castle was sold to engineer Barbu Pantazi, being taken over by the state during the communist regime. Barbu Pantazi immigrated and died abroad. He had no offsprings. The current mayor is mister Irimia Marsavela, of Rroma ethnicity, a tractor driver.
After a visit in a Rroma community with many, many children, a journalist’s recorder is a mess that can hardly be sorted out. Chunks of phrases chopped by enthusiastic cheers disrupted by a flood of intimate details. Some ideas were saved.
The first:there are few last names in the community, which means there are many marriages between relatives, much like Europe’s decadent monarchies at the end of the XIXth century, at the height of the Belle Epoque. There are a few “dynasties” and Marsavela is amongst the most wide-spread. Which means that hereditary diseases are very much present. For instance, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease ( named after the three doctors who discovered it). It is a peripheral neuropathy, a genetic disorder, a hereditary disease characterized by muscular weakness. Up till today there is no cure for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.
The second: in the two years since the “Each child in kindergarten” program has been functioning, the kindergarten has become an example. And it is not just about the fifty lei social coupon ( for each child taken daily to the kindergarten, the family is rewarded with a fifty lei coupon), money which is fundamental for some of these families. It is about the future. There are, of course, some shades to this reality. Mother from Budila: ”Every morning, the children leave for kindergarten slapped twice. Otherwise, they won’t go”. In a press article you are not allowed to issue personal opinions. I don’t issue personal opinions. I write. Another mother from Budila: “ The neighbours spurred me- take the little one, take him to kindergarten, ‘cause many did so and it was fine. We took one after another”.
The third: there is a direct, visible connection between the degree of education and the way people allow themselves or not to be devoured by poverty.
Spring passes, as well as summer, we keep going to Budila. We want to step in the anytime-now-collapsing houses of these people, we want to sit at their tables and listen to their lives. There are many on-going dramas. Nevertheless, tragedies have, they always have, a fine comic touch.
Gandac Colorado and all his brothers
At 224, on Morii street, lives the family comprised of Ciprian Gandac and Viorica Lingurar. The two are, actually, cousins. Until the age of thirteen, Viorica lived in the “Floare de colt” orphanage in Fagaras. Then, with Gandac family, where she was supposed to be like a sister to Ciprian. She was, however, more like a wife.
Together, they have six children: Silviu-Marian, eight; Roberto-Colorado, seven, who has passed well through the ECK program; Sidonia-Maria, four, diagnosed with leukemia, admitted in Cluj Napoca; Esmeralda ( whose last name isn’t Gandac, but Lingurar; thus beeing this controversy regarding her birth, she ended up with a professional caregiver); Madalin Emanuel, two; Luca, the youngest, seven months.
The mother, madam Veronica, is only twenty three. She welcomes us with a violent-blonde dyed hair, with her breasts, enormous, halfway out the simple bra, with Luca in her arms and Silviu, Colorado and Madalin,following her, like lieutenants. We tell her we came to speak with Colorado. With Gandac Colorado ( in Romanian his name means “potato bug”). Despite the obvious appearance, she fails to understand why we would want to talk to him, what makes Gandac Colorado so special.
We tell her he has a unprecedented name, probably unique in the world, that it makes him special, and especially that he was one of the “Each child in kindergarten” program. She consents. We speak to Colorado. We find out that his friends call him “Colo” or even “ Coloratul” (colored one). After prolonged hesitation, “Colo” recites us a poem.
Viorica doesn’t have a job, has no income, nor any professional qualification. She attended school during the period she was in the orphanage, but didn’t excel. The truth is she doesn’t really know how to write. She likes soap-operas. It’s her main inspiration for choosing the children’s names, too. I ask her if she still wants children. She tell me that she doesn’t, that she’s had her fair share of them. Ciprian, the husband, a gymnasium graduate, is not home. He’s gone working by the day. The expression used is: “he’s gone back carrying”.
Gandac family survives from the state aid, the children’s allowances and a support allowance. Overall, each family member is entitled to 102 lei monthly. She is looking forward to Matei turning three, so that she can send him to kindergarten. Each family member’s revenue would grow, if the fifty lei were to be divided equally, by 8,33 lei. They live together in Gandac Ciprian mother’s house, a 16 square metres single-room wooden construction. There is no running water. The electric installation is an improvisation.
Lavinia Marsavela is seven, and it’s three years since she can no longer walk. The Romanian state records have her with a Ist degree handicap, suffering from motor deficit in the inferior limbs and neuromotor setback. She is not the only one with this condition in Marsavela house. An aunt, her father’s sister, is just speed-crossing the room, on her hands, with her legs curved and raised back.
The family’s backbone is Maria Marsavela, who, at fifty eight takes pride in her 36 grandsons and 4 great-grandsons. Lavinia is Viorel’s daughter, one of Maria Marsavela’s elder boys, at thirty-six years old. He used to live with Semartianca Marsavela, who in August of 2009 left the conjugal home and settled in Cyprus, from where she doesn’t give much damn. Lavinia has a younger brother, Costi ( Constantin-Viorel) who’s only five ( his mother abandoned him when he was three months old).
Grandma Marsavela shows him the camera, luring him: “Costi, honey, tell the poem you also told for the television!” Local TV reporters have entered the houses in Budila several times. They then presented the situation in apocalyptical colors.
Costi asks which poem he also told the televisions, as he no longer remembers. Grandma Marsavela: “With the hanky, Costi, with the hanky!” The child takes on his poem telling position and recites: “ My hanky is little/ And with a nose that is so tiny/I promise to be good/To keep it tidy/I do not want people saying-here’s Dirty/ I want people saying- here’s Tidy!”
Marsavela house, with only two young children, is part of the middle class among the Rromas in Budila. Internet is not just an abstract concept here, there is, right before our eyes a twenty-three man, called Melesio ( from a secondary character of the eternal soap-opera “Esmeralda”), who even has a Facebook account. He is the youngest of Maria Marsavels’ children, he is an 11 grader, attending in part-time. His name is actually Ionut, he was married, without papers, for five months, but the woman ran from Budila somewhere near Constanta. She didn’t take the child along. The child lives with some aunt of hers.
The woman who was 10 lei short for an abortion
We find Nicoleta-Andrada Pietraru lying in bed, with a morbid pallor on her face. Her eyes bear the traces of some recent beatings. She’s one of Ioana Ardelean’s five children. At twenty-three, she already has four children- Oana Lavinia ( six, beneficiated from the ECK program), Daniel Elisei ( four, also attending kindergarten). She also has a girl, Milena, who’s not even two and a boy, Catalin, who are in an orphanage, as she had no means to raise them.
Nicoleta is pregnant again, almost two months now, with a thirty-seven year old man, who fathers six children and is a widower. His wife died of leukemia. The man has no job, and is living off the children’s allowances.
Ioana Ardelean, the girl’s mother: “ He drink all the money- he beated her-up the last time, tied her with a rope. I put her a, forgive me sterilet, it worked and she threw them out, as he said why doesn’t she become pregnant. He came for the ID, ‘cause she couldn’t throw it out without an ID, and he took her to the city. He’s name is Vasile, but he’s called Moca.”
Nicoleta is the mother of the four children, born from different fathers. None was acknowledged by the father. They all have her last name. Elisei is the only one born there, inside the house, as he came to this world during winter-time.
How did this beautiful blue-eyed girl end up here? Why do men abuse her and why does she let herself be abused? The answer leads us to another tragedy: On’s death.
On was one of Ioana Ardelean’s sons. He had just graduated from third grade, he was top of the class, with the degree in his hand, when he was discovered with a brainstem tumour. She stayed with him almost two years in the hospital, at Fundeni. But On still died. And from there it all went downhill: she had a fight with her husband ( who wasn’t Rroma, but a somehow wealthy peasant, from a village near Targoviste) who didn’t agree to a certain medical procedure for On, a drainage. Ioana Ardelean somehow blamed him for the child’s death, and they could no longer live together. When she came home, the daughter, Nicoleta, left unattended in the dawns of teenagehood, was already pregnant with her first child.
I ask Nicoleta ( who has a tattoo of her name- Nico- on the hand) why she baptized her oldest son, Elisei, a biblical name. Is it the influence of a neo protestant cult? No. They are all Orthodox, even though their grandparents are indeed followers of a religious group and they attend the Gathering. But Ioana Ardelean and her children didn’t fancy that. I ask Nico why she hasn’t tattooed the name of one of those men who kept giving her children. With difficulty, she waves her hand in disgust.
Ioana Ardelean worked at “Tractorul” factory for almost ten years, then she had temporary jobs in sanitation. She will have no pension, as she doesn’t have fifteen years of seniority in the work field. Furthermore, she is only 51 and has no hope of reaching retirement. She is certain that because of all the worries on her shoulders she hasn’t much to live.
Nicoleta only weighs thirty kilograms. The pregnancy makes her nauseated. She throws-up everything. She throws-up even the water that she drinks. They went to the doctor and he recommended an abortion. She even has a paper- which clearly says termination of pregnancy recommended… On top of it all, it would be free. But it takes a trip to Brasov, it cannot be done in Budila. The women are ten lei short from getting there. I give those women ten lei.
Sebastian and all his brothers
There are hundreds of children in the Rroma hamlet, but none like Sebastian Ardelean. Sebastian is almost nine, is in and out of school, but has a brilliant intelligence. I ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, and his dream isn’t far fetched: he wants to become a cook. It’s good to be a cook. The word got to him from around the neighbours about the existence of TV shows dedicated to gastronomers. He wants a masterchef hat.
Each time we came back to Budila, Sebastian was wearing that same dirty sweater. At times, when the forever-standing clouds above the hamlet unleash, he pulls a green raincoat over. I’ve seen him in that sweater both at fifteen degrees and at thirty. He has no other clothes.
There are ten children in Ardelean family, of which one was taken to an orphanage. The mother, Laura Brumar, is twenty eight and graduated seven classes in the Romanian learning system, without having learned to read or write. The father, Marian, graduated gymnasium, but has no professional qualification. He has a serious alcohol problem. Three of their youngest children are enrolled in the ECK program.
Sebastian has three older sisters- Denisa-Maria ( already settled-down at thirteen!), Loredana-Ramona ( twelve, no longer attending school, didn’t attend kindergarten), Madalina-Alexandra ( ten, no longer attending school, didn’t attend kindergarten). The rest are younger: Florin Iulian-Vladut ( eight, with an uncertain paternity, not having been acknowledged by Marian Ardelean, he bears his mother’s last name, and he wants to become “ the Police”, to shoot thieves in the head), Valentina Vasilica ( seven, not attending school), Marian ( four, beneficiary of the ECK program), Florina-Georgiana (three, just enrolled in the ECK program) and Nicusor-Ionut ( two, future beneficiary of the ECK program).
The individual revenue for each family member for Brumar-Ardelean household is of 48.7 lei. The fifty lei, the social coupon for attending kindergarten, are, for this family, the difference between life and death by starvation. Marian, four, is attending kindergarten, and for the first days after receiving the coupon, he has food in his stomach, afterwards comes the hunger cry. They all live together occupying a space of approximately six square metres, with no running water or electricity, in a windowless wooden house. This house can tumble down in any moment.
Not only can Sebastian quickly memorise poems, or do quick, flawless math calculations, and not only does he posses a sturdy optimism and an incredible lust for life, but he also posses genuine leadership qualities. Furthermore, without the slightest shyness, but instinctively, he is well aware of the boundaries that aren’t safe to cross when asking for something. On November 2nd 2014, the day he will turn nine, a journalist and a photographer from Bucharest, will cross the fenceless yard, and will hand him a city-like bow-tied box. The box shall contain a chef’s hat and it shall be the first gift received by Sebastian in his entire life.
We first went to Budila for a children’s census, mandatory for the functioning of “Each child in kindergarten” program. Alongside us- twenty volunteers from Brasov Raiffeisen centre and OvidiuRo. employees and Simona Cristea, local program coordinator, a twenty year old woman, a bundle of kindness, recently awarded as the best local coordinator of OvidiuRo. programs. Subsequently, Raiffeisen volunteers were to convince two hundred people in donating 2% of their income tax towards OvidiuRo.
Together, we entered the houses of 145 children, with ages between two and six. 72 of the children we met are attending kindergarten, and 13 of them are preparing for it through OvidiuRo. Association’s program, Sotron- ( for two year old children) which they attend once a week, together with their parents. 4 cannot attend due to health problems, and 43 are to be enrolled for the new school year. Another 13 are to be enrolled upon turning three.
„It’s a beneficial program, that’s why we, the town hall wanted to be involved, with money. For them, these coupons are a God sent. It’s money from the Local Council. It’s not that big of an effort, it’s a suitable effort. I saw that parents, too, are involved. One can notice it in school, too, the change is already visible.”
Irimia Marsavela, mayor in Budila
Budila through Simona’s eyes
“Life in the community?The women watch TV in the evening, soap-operas, and discuss the events happening there, they also watch the news, discuss politics. The men linger around the gates, children play ball all day long. They’re happy. When the social aide for a newborn was raised, there was an explosion of births here. If it raises again, I think it would be a mistake.”
Simona Cristea, local coordinator of ECK program, employee of Budesti town hall.
“And still, there is a lot of discrimination in Romania! Also at the workplace, and everywhere, even if we don’t want to admit it. When Rroma people go and see on the door that there is a job, and they go in, they are told that the position has just been filled. This is the truth.”
Simona Cristea, local coordinator of ECK program, employee of Budila town hall
„Those who want to have it better, actually struggle, go fruit-picking in the forest or for medicinal herbs, but for that, too, you need a place to sell them, because if you sit on the side of the road you get nothing but fines! There are fines for prostitution, also, going up to one hundred million. There was a girl who used to practice prostitution in Brasov, but she left to practice this abroad, in England.”
Simona Cristea, local coordinator of the ECK program, employee of Budila town hall
Part II – Great people and the Pioneers
How did these two worlds meet?- the world of those in Budila, Brasov, who, from a material standpoint, are short of almost everything, and which was the subject of my first episode of the “Filantropica 2014”series, and the philanthropists world who make the good things possible, and who, from a financial standpoint, are short of nothing. The answer resides in two names- Leslie Hawke and Maria Gheorghiu- and it encompasses four exemplary humans.
Who are those who donate for our country’s poor childrens’ education? Are there typologies? Is there a culture of philanthropy taking shape in Romania? What follows are the conclusions of some detailed meetings, during which we listened to the philanthropists, we met them in office buildings, in parks, in coffee-shops, and we tried to understand them. We chose four representative cases.
Why their money are needed alongside a culture of recurrent donations was the subject of my first episode of the “Filantropica” series.
Gabriel and Gabriela
I am waiting for Gabriel Kreindler (27 years old) in a coffee-shop, not far from Victoria Palace. I easily recognize him, thought we’ve never met. Gabriel is strongly Americanized- a boy still on the steps of the evolution towards the man who is to experience great academic successes, being led by a brilliant intelligence, un-touched by a country that wants him clueless. Gabriel carries a mountain backpack, inappropriate for the urban jungle, wears geeky glasses- with brown frames, and his hair ( which, during high-school years, at Tudor Vianu, back when Gabriel was nicknamed Kappa, was legendary) rather frizzy. He has a T-shirt announcing, in English, that imagination is more important than knowledge.
Gabriel Kreindler was a triple laureate of international mathematics olympics ( he was awarded two silver medals and a golden one), studied mathematics at Princeton, has an Oxford masters in economy and is now an MIT PhD student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His knowledge is impressive.
Gabriel Kreindler and his wife Gabriela Neneciu (36 years old), with an initial formation as a French teacher, wearing a very relaxed , slightly sauvage French carré hair-cut, donate for “Each Child in Kindergarten” through Alex Fund ( the American subsidiary of OvidiuRo.). He first heard of this organisation during a summer holiday. He was driving his car, a Renault Clio with small engine, towards his parents’ house in Clinceni.
Gabriel’s parents are engineers. They moved, not long ago, from Drumul Taberei ( where both Gabriel and his older brother attended school, his brother now working in Paris, in the technical department of the music industry). As it’s a long way home, Gabriel used to pass his time by listening to the radio. This is how he found out about OvidiuRo. He was taken-in by some key-words: especially these two expressions: “ early education” and “ children with no means”. The recurrent donation was what one might call a “New Year’s Resolution”, a commitment taken-on by people the night in-between years.
Usually, people make promises to themselves about quitting smoking or taking on sports, or selling their houses and living in a trailer, and also, they usually don’t quit smoking and don’t take on sports either, they don’t sell their house and don’t end up living in trailers. Gabriel and Gabriela made a promise to themselves, on that 2014 New Year Eve. And since then, they make a two hundred dollars monthly donation.
Before leaving, Gabriel doubts he can be a role-model. I refuse him that possibility and try to demonstrate him, in an almost mathematical manner, that everything he had done in his life, so far, is exemplary.
“I don’t think it’s spectacular that we donate money for poor children who need this in order to attend kindergarten. I believe it would be an outrage not to do it, knowing all that we know about early education.”,
Gabriel Kreindler and Gabriela Neneciu
Cosmin Alexandru (44 years old) was an entrepreneur, is now a consultant, was married several time, and still is, has two high-school boys from his second marriage and a girl from his third ( the last one). The youngest is only one and a half.
Cosmin Alexandru is punctual. He comes before us wearing shorts and a summer shirt in pale shades. He is popular on Facebook, people follow him: after writing about the need for recurrent donors at OvidiuRo., his friends stood-up and managed to raise money enough to help an almost complete kindergarten group ( they raised money for seventeen children, to be more exact).
Cosmin Alexandru is a passionate swimmer, flirted a bit with politics ( do you remember the Union for Reconstructing Romania, a politically-hopeful-project, of 2000?, well, you should know that he initiated it; at the height of the party, they had a mayor in Camapulng Moldovenesc), he writes for “22” magazine. His website has as motto, the words “ There is always a way to be better”, in English.
He no longer remembers how he got to OvidiuRo. Most probably he was convinced when he heard Leslie Hawke and Maria Gheorghiu, the organisation’s co-founders. He saw Leslie at two events, one of them being Ethan Hawke’s latest movie release, at Palatul Copiilor in Bucharest (“Before midnight”, in June 2013). He’s acquainted with Maria for about two years. He admits: “I am completely taken with Maria as human. I do not have her qualities, and it is precisely because of that, that I can appreciated them-first of all her ability of keeping her enthusiasm and determination, indifferent to all the setbacks, which are inevitable, because that’s life. This would crush me.”
Currently, Cosmin Alexandru is a multinational consultant ( especially strategy and organisational development). He graduated the Academy for Economic Studies in 1992 and he was co-founder of the first private market research company in Romania. He sold it in 1996 to the German company GfK, fifth in the world in the field. He managed GfK Romania until 2005. Even so, this man, who has had crushing financial victories, led hundreds of people, declares himself overwhelmed by Leslie Hawke’s powerful insight in understanding Romanian reality.
“I find that Leslie has a revolutionary way of looking at the problem- she is looking to greatly improve the quality of a society, not by improving the quality of higher education, but by improving the quality of lower education. It is the western approach to society , not eastern one. Eastern societies focus on elites, because they have the idea that value feedback resides there, they invest in elites. But there is no feedback from value, because there is nobody to put it back in the system. Leslie has a bottom-up approach.”
“During the communist period, I felt education as being meaningless. I was compelled to attend dozens of classes that I never used and which were a complete waste of my time. I am not the academic information- gathering type, so I didn’t fit this manner of schooling”,
Cosmin Alexandru, recurring donor for OvidiuRo
I asked a direct question to Carmen Bota (37 years old): “Who are you?”. We agreed this was the most difficult question in the world and I slightly danced around the answer in order to arrive at her encounter with OvidiuRo. The truth is, it started with her passion for Ethan Hawke’s movies. She had already seen “Before sunset” and “Before sunrise”. She was, thus, taken over, even before “Before midnight”.
One must not gather from this that she was one of those who are ready to commit to anything for a movie star. Not at all. The name Hawke merely made her pay more attention, and when she read about Leslie’s accomplishments in Romania, she found them admirable. This was all happening two years ago. She too, like all Romanians, had her encounters with the Rroma community. She knows that OvidiuRo. is not just about the Rroma community, but she also knows that the poorest Romanians are still the Rromas. “ We marginalise them a lot, and so do foreigners, they’re no better”, says Carmen Bota.
She’s from Cluj-Napoca, moved to Bucharest out of love for her ex-husband. The sentimental story that lured her in the capital’s entanglements was doubled by a young woman’s rebellion- leaving five hundred kilometres away was her declaration of independence. She attended university in Cluj -Napoca, and a cultural management masters in Berlin, around 2002. And that’s when it happened. She was 25 when she understood “ the severe marginalization of different communities- gay, Turks, Rroma and so on”.
And she came to realise she had within her a set of prejudices. She made a promise to herself that she was to return the country without them. She came back determined to move mountains from their traditional spots, to get involved in festivals, to put into practice everything she had learned on cultural management. Just as Cosmin Alexandru’s case for politics, Carmen Bota’s efforts in culture were a decade earlier their time. She took refuge in marketing, where she was still seen as an artist. She now works for Skoda. Years went by and, naturally, her life changes. She has a nine year old son, Luca. Her current partner is German. Yes, she still has thoughts of emigration, but she cares where Romania is heading.
At first, she tried a collaboration from work with OvidiuRo, but that didn’t happen, from various reasons. She took it in her own. She became a recurrent donor. She speaks to Luca about all these and has hopes to one day actually visit a community supported by OvidiuRo.
She met Leslie Hawke during an event where she was invited. This was last year, before Christmas, when a small reunion of the donors was organised. There were, of course, public figures present and even politicians, as they represented the image capital of the project. The ministry of Education was also invited. Carmen admits: “ It was a closed circle and I was glad to be part of it. I talked, briefly, to Leslie. I think I was just smiling, looking around and thinking, what was I actually doing there. I felt good, I felt close, involved and I was surprised to find that the amount was irrelevant, as long as you are a constant donor. I realized the importance- for it to be a reliable sum of money.”
“I remember it was an evening with a terrible weather- it had snowed for the first time that winter. It was somewhere in the Old Town, at Van Gogh cafe, there is a constant problem with parking in that area, and I said to myself, be it rain, snow, thunder or tempest, I have to get there”.
„I found it admirable, the idea than an American comes and tells us how we should educate our children”,
Carmen Bota, recurrent donor at OvidiuRo.
Pascal and Konrad
In January 2011 Pascal Prigent took over the CEO position of GSK, a significant player of the pharma industry, as business journalists would present him. He came from France, had been fascinated by Alexandre Dumas during childhood, and practiced fencing, as an amateur. He had already managed companies with thousands of employees and million dollars turnovers.
In the meantime, he left Romania and is still working for GSK, but in the United States of America. It was soon clear to him that Eastern Europe has more people in need of help than anywhere else on the Old Continent. He wanted to help, but his mindset was that of a manager: “ There are many associations- hundreds of associations helping the children, but few that actually focus on sending the children to kindergarten, and I find this to be a very intelligent method, as the importance of pre-school education had already been demonstrated. The sooner you attend a form of learning, the greater the chances in the long run. A ten-year old child might already be lost, it might already be too late”.
We talk on Skype, with me being in the tavern belonging to the Romanian Peasant Museum. Pascal Prigent is on the East Coast of the United States when he tells me: “Romania has a certain image, you know it, that it lacks certainty, that there are too many Rromas, that the buildings are ugly, and generally, that it is all very un-organized. But it is far from this. I was mostly impressed by Transylvania and Bucovina”. He even visited a community supported by OvidiuRo. He can no longer recall if it was from Dambovita or Brasov county. His conclusion: “ It’s very hard to be yourself again after you’ve seen people living in those conditions. When you know children are not attending school, you tend to blame the families, but you then see the conditions in which those families live in and you think it over. All respectable people should donate for programs like those from OvidiuRo”.
Konrad Niemann works is a German bank. He has to do with many wealthy people, he offers them advice on what to do with all that money. His brother, Friedrich, managed the Hilton in Bucharest. He is now in Frankfurt. Konrad used to visit him very often, he did a lot of traveling in Romania. He liked the people, even though, he, himself, started with the same prejudices: “ The general impression in Germany, about Romanians, isn’t all that good, but then again many Germans have never been here and have a distorted, negative image, and talk a lot about it”.
But Romania, Konrad tells me, in a flawless Skype connection, started right on time, not a second later, “ is a very beautiful country, however its image in Germany is that nothing works here, that people are rude. It is not so. I donate money for several organisations, and I am interested in the destination of my money. With OvidiuRo. everything is transparent, my brother met Leslie and this is how I ended up being involved”. There is, however, an added value to the inter-human relationship level: “ We are all Europeans. We all need a better future for these children. I haven’t been to any community, but I have seen photos, I am aware of the conditions these people live in”.
On his brother’s birthday, gifts were not accepted, however donations were encouraged. He was to do the same for his anniversary. He was to celebrate it in June, during the only game-free weekend of the Brasil World Championship, as all his friends are very busy, and, summer is, anyway, the only period they can meet-up. He expects to raise up to several thousand euros. But he is even more eager to donate them.
“The most important thing is to help children not end up in the street anymore. And only education can do this. Otherwise Romania remains in poverty, and if Romania is poor, we are all, poorer”,
Konrad Nieumann, recurrent donor at OvidiuRo
How did the donors reach those who needed their money? The answer is comprised of two names- Leslie Hawke and Maria Gheorghiu.
Leslie Green spent her childhood in Fort Worth, Texas, in the inner America, at a significant distance both from the East and West coast, as the granddaughter of a poor grandma from Abilene, Texas, with a life-long regret of not having attended school as she would have wanted to, but also as the daughter of a typical country judge. At seventeen, Miss Green married a gentleman, Jim Hawke, who has to be a brilliant mathematics student at Yale. Leslie Green was to become Leslie Hawke, forever. She, too, will get a bachelor’s in Psychology, at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs.
In 1969, during their honeymoon, in New York, she meets Jim Hawke’s good friend David Weiss. Daniel Weiss, a lawyer, is now Leslie Hawke’s third husband. They waited each other, like in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels, she being the mother of Ethan Hawke and then of two other children from the marriage with her second husband, and him, having been married for twenty five years, a marriage which resulted in five daughters and a son.
Monday morning, 18th July 1999, Leslie Hawke was heading towards work. She lived, back then, something that she would call “ a dead-end job” and a “so-so relationship”. Like any reasonable American, she, too, was troubled by the news regarding the disappearance of the plane piloted by John Fitzgerald Kennedy Junior, a disappearance that announced an imminent tragedy.
In the summer of 1978, she had travelled to Spain with a friend from Puerto Rico. She had seen people begging and couldn’t understand how that was possible. In 1985 she arrives in Africa, with a project of communitary development. But Leslie Hawke didn’t want to be just another white-face setting foot in Africa with the purpose of saving humanity. It seemed too much, it seemed inappropriate.
In the mid 80’s she was working in a small IT startup company. It was the avant-garde, long before its time, so the company went into bankruptcy. Ten years later, the visionaries started over and re-hired Leslie Hawke. The company had been sold to a larger, German one, and here she is, the woman of the New York subway: a fine lady, with an advantageous middle-management position. “ I was making a lot of money, but I was spending them all just to live in New York!”. At twenty, even at twenty-five and even later, at thirty, New York is worth all this. But she no longer needed all that money, she could have lived, at least for a while, with less. “I would have definitely volunteered more when I was much younger, but I am also sure that I wouldn’t have been of much use, I didn’t have many skills back then”.
Google. “Peace corps”. Search. Leslie Hawke is searching her future on the Internet. Things start to come together. She finds out she has three options- sub-Saharan Africa, South-Eastern Asia and Eastern Europe. At the end of the week she visits Ethan and his wife- at the time- actress Uma Thurman. She tells him about her decision to join the Peace Corps. Ethan doesn’t take her seriously- it’s like, my mother’s idea of this week. Leslie Hawke has had such ideas before, but never like this. But it’s never easy for a son to contradict his mother. Not even they are millionaires. “What are the options?, he asks. Leslie tells them to him. “Eastern Europe?! It’s the most interesting place in the world these days!”. And back then, at the end of the second millennium, it truly was. When you enter the Peace Corps, you must know it is much like a lottery. This lottery sent Leslie Hawke all the way to Romania.
It is February of 2002, Leslie Hawke is assigned to the Foundation for Community Support, in Bacau “ a four hours drive from the capital, how bad could it be?” Her remuneration is 180 American dollars a month. Every morning, she sees children, Rromas, begging. Leslie Hawke thinks they are four-five year old. She starts talking to one of them- Alex. Alex was actually eight. “It was incredible how little these children were in comparison to those their age in America”, she remembers. And people would pass them by like they didn’t exist.
She took Alex with her and took him to a center designated to children living on the streets. He had- as Leslie remembers in 2002, memory recorded by an average-edition American newspaper- the look American children have upon entering Disney heaven for the first time. It wasn’t even forty-eight hours later when Alex’s mother showed up to take her child back, telling Lesline, while exiting, that there are plenty of children living on the streets of Romania, she should pick another! She didn’t pick another. She chose the hard way- changing the immediate reality.
Leslie Hawke wondered: why are there women and children living on the streets in Romania, and why aren’t they in the States? Of course, the answer was to be found in the American associations that do not allow women and children to be on the streets, and if they were, they shouldn’t be there for long. This woman has a saying, that went with her from the New York subway to the side streets of Bacau. The saying is: do the good that you can do! .
Madame Hawke’s favourite poet is, somehow predictable, Walt Whitman. And in Walt Whitmans’s poetry lies a verse announcing that regardless of your current accomplishments, there will be, each time, without exception, another battle that is meant to be fought. She knew the good deeds done by “The Due Fud” in New York, she knew the “Ready, willing & able” program and she started implementing it at Bacau, for the mothers and especially for the children. In Romanian is was called “Gata, dispus si capabil” (exact translation in Romanian of the program). Mothers were offered support in finding and keeping a job. In the meantime it was compulsory: children had to attend school. The program coordinated by Leslie helped mothers find jobs, especially in sanitation, and had salaries of up to seventy-five dollars a months. The project worked.
It is still cold and dark in Romania. And Leslie keeps in touch with her son via e-mail. Her son tells her there is no need for her to freeze in Romania. She expects to receive a quilt or something for Christmas, but Uma Thurman, her daughter-in-law at the time, offered her a splendid designer dress, created by one of the most famous fashions houses in the world, perfect for fundraising events.
Leslie Hawke used the fact that she is the mother of a Hollywood personality, she’s not afraid in admitting it, she stubbornly opened doors, she knew the money was in the pockets of the rich and she knew rich people love a good parade. And this is how the Halloween Charity Ball came into being, this is what made it possible that millionaire Dinu Patriciu bought, in full economic height, Uma Thurman’s 30,000 euro purse. This is what made it possible, that these money to be used for the benefit of poor children, keeping them in kindergarten.
Leslie Hawke, on Romania and other demons
“The poverty we see within the communities we work isn’t relative, is very true, very real. People are always dressed and fed, there is no hunger, but malnutrition exists”.
“I don’t think there is a network of organized begging in Bacau. I know what you’re saying, yes, I’ve seen the movie Filantropica. But places with a high number of poor people don’t necessarily have to have an outside organized network. It is all rather organic”.
“Romanians expect for someone from outside to come and help them. I still cannot believe that, after all the time I’ve been here, this mindset still exists”.
„Having a son who is famous helps. In the beginning, of course, little did it matter in Bacau that Ethan Hawke is my son. It opened doors later, no doubt about that. But there is also no doubt in the fact that everything I accomplished was through hard work, not because there was a famous person caught in the middle”.
“Rroma organisations, led by Rroma people have the notion that they must fight prejudice, we have the notion of working in the education department. They don’t like us. You can see it as a competition market- everybody wants their projects to succeed”
“We are driven by an ideal. We weren’t hired by somebody for a job. We created OvidiuRo. out of faith”.
Maria Gheorghiu, 45 years old,is a paradoxical woman: half dreamer crossed by utopias, half an experienced pragmatic. She graduated the Pedagogical highschool in Bucharest.
Teacher at some neighbourhood school, in Drumul Taberei, Maria Gheorghiu took advantage of the windows of opportunity opened by the Revolution. She completed her studies with a Soros scholarship and a Step by Step program in America. She was a usual presence of the American School in Bucharest. And one day, Leslie Hawke came to the American School. She was of course, welcomed to the principal’s office.
Maria had just left that office, so the memory of the recent conversation with the teacher from Drumul Taberei, who had a stubborn determination in evolving, was still fresh in her head. She spoke to Leslie about Maria, and suggested they should meet. She have her Maria’s e-mail address. Leslie wrote to her. And Maria, in a yet another destiny whim, was online and replied instantly. They met the following day and haven’t separated since.
In 2004 they founded Ovidiu Rom. Where did this name come from? You won’t believe it, but the name also bears two components, combining, harmoniously, fiction and pragmatism. On one side, it comes from the Latin poet, Ovidiu, from the idea of social metamorphosis through education. On the other side, however, it comes from the name of the company that was amongst the program’s first sponsors in Bacau.
Who came up with this name? It’s hard to tell, its history was romanced to the point where the truth is beyond retracing. Most probably, it was a consensus, as Maria Gheorghiu and Leslie Hawke had a impeccably functioning relationship. To the point, points out the American woman, with a healthy, Texan laughter: “ We got along great, from the very beginning. Had I worked like that with my husbands, I wouldn’t have ended up with three!”.
In time, the “m” fell from Ovidiu Rom, as the organisation founded by Maria Gheorghiu and Leslie Hawke has social, not ethnic basis. Their help is not solely for the Rromas, but for poor children. The reality happens to be that most poor children are Rroma.
“We were pretty harassed a by Rroma NGOs also, due to the fact that neither myself, nor Leslie are of Rroma ethnicity, so why should we handle this? The solution was in no way ethnical, so we changed it to OvidiuRo. It’s for the better”.
Through the eyes of the people at OvidiuRO
- “For us, 50 lei isn’t much, but for them it’s huge, it matters a great deal. Here, in Bucharest, for example, you spend 50 lei just like that. There, it matters- a bottle of oil, sugar, potatoes. It’s terrible speaking of such differences”. Roxana Oprea, OvidiuRo employee
- “Parents think of their children in a short-term mathematical equation: they make 100 lei by attending sheep, 50 lei if they attend kindergarten. I don’t know the impact of me telling them that it’s a good thing for their child to have an education, because the parents are more concerned about the food of that day”. Victor Mazilescu, former OvidiuRo employee
- “When visiting the communities, I get this feeling of energy and enthusiasm that is at the same time destructive- it’s that moment when you know you’re leaving and there’s nothing more you can do for them. I constantly find myself with the need to say: “ What are you short of? No teeth, I’ll re-do your teeth!”, but then I realise I cannot take everything on me”.
- „Every NGO is built by its people. All organisations are, in fact, the people who believe in what they’re doing”. Oana Livadariu, OvidiuRo employee
This material was done within the ARC Scholarships for Journalism regarding Philanthropy, a project of the Community Relationships Association and published on this site: http://www.dela0.ro/filantropica-2014-copiii.