Smart Woman, October 25, 2010

Poor Children are Romania’s Most Under-valued Resource

SW: You have been chosen National Ambassador of “2010 – European Year of Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion”. What does this mean to you? Is your mission different than the one you have at the Asociatia OvidiuRo?

The solution to poverty is education – so it is exactly the same mission. I think everyone agrees on the importance of education – but I don’t think a lot of people realize that it has to start with early education or else it just doesn’t work very well. Children’s brains from age 3-5 need intellectual stimulation. Most middle class parents realize that early education is good for their children socially, but many don’t realize how important it also is for their mental development. Poor kids who miss out on early education lose both socially and mentally – and they never catch up to their peers.

I believe this is the cause of a great deal of prejudice. Even teachers often think that their poor kids are intellectually inferior to their middle class kids. The problem is that the poor kids aren’t getting much intellectual stimulation at home. If a society doesn’t make up for what’s missing at home, by high quality early education, everyone suffers in the long run. Frankly, the best solution is to start by educating poor parents on how to better interact with their kids.

SW: By which methods do you convince underprivileged families to keep their children in school? Is there always a problem of money?

The first thing we do is show an interest in their children! Usually, no one else has ever done that before. We help the local authorities to give meal coupons to parents whose children have perfect monthly attendance.  This small incentive makes a big difference to parents who are living on the edge. And of course we help with essentials like shoes and underwear for the kids. A lot of people don’t seem to realize that poor parents have pride too! If a child comes home from kindergarten in tears because the other kids made fun of him because his t-shirt was torn or filthy, that kid’s mother is not going to make him go back to school the next day if she can’t provide him with something better to wear.

SW: Is kindergarten so important in Romania that a child who has not been enrolled in one could drop out of school because he/she cannot keep up with the others?

It happens every day. When you combine a severely disadvantaged home situation with a lack of educational opportunities, you have a recipe for failure. If you start school at age 8, are put in the back of the class, don’t have the workbook that the rest of the kids have, and didn’t have any breakfast this morning, how good a student do you think you’d be? It’s just common sense.

Poor children are Romania’s most under-valued resource.

SW: How is the Government responding to your programs? Isn’t it the authority’s job to make sure that every child is in school?

Romania has good education laws, and if the new education legislation as proposed by the chamber of deputlies and enhanced by the Senat becomes law, it will be even better. The problem in the past has been that the secondary legislation does not adequately ensure enforcement. And ultimately, enforcement depends on the character, intelligence, and energy of the local authorities. That’s why we invited every local community in Romania to apply to us for funds to get “every child in kindergarten”. Where there is a will, there’s a way.

SW: What are, in you opinion, the biggest achievements and disappointments of the association since Asociatia OvidiuRo started its mission?

Our greatest achievement is that we have grown from getting 30 disadvantaged children into school in 2001 to helping enroll 1200 in kindergarten in 2010. My biggest disappointment is that there are still children begging on the streets of Bucharest and most other Romanian cities. Begging is child labor; it deprives children of their childhood. Nine out of ten children who beg on the street never get an education and wind up in crime. Why does Romanian society allow it?  Why doesn’t the church oppose it? There are some evils that we can’t do anything about, but child begging is not one of them.

SW: How do you encourage people to help the association?

I hope what we do is encourage people to help disadvantaged children! If you know a poor child who is not going to kindergarten, talk to the child’s parents!  Find out why she is not enrolled or not attending every day. If it’s because the parent doesn’t understand the importance of early education, explain it to them. If it’s because they lack of resources, offer to help. If it’s because the kindergarten is full – go with them to talk to the director. If people chose who to vote for based on the candidate or the party’s position on education, the politicians would have to get serious about doing something about it. To blame the fact that children are not in kindergarten on there not being enough places in kindergartens is utterly absurd.  It’s the tail wagging the dog, as we say where I come from.
SW: What is the profile of the volunteers?

Most of our volunteers in Bucharest are young professional people. They love Romania and they want to help make it strong and competitive among nations, but they are getting increasingly discouraged.
SW: Have you been in the poor communities that benefit from the help of the association and have you meet the children and their parents? What were your impressions about them? How did they perceive your help?

It breaks my heart to talk to parents who can’t provide for their children as well as you or I can. Sure, every now and then we run into lousy parents who make terrible choices that hurt their children – but most parents, no matter how poor or uneducated they are, still truly want the best for their children. They just have no way to provide it. What can an illiterate mother say when a kindergarten director tells her the class is full — or gives her a list of materials to bring to school, which she can’t begin to afford? Poor people are not very skilled at standing up for their rights. Sometimes they get angry and yell – but that’s because they are utterly powerless.

SW: The Halloween Ball 2010 is approaching, what should the guest expect of the big night? What are your expectations for the funds raised by the event?

The companies who come to the ball as sponsors should expect a huge thank you from us! The people who come to the ball as their guests should expect us to ask for their support too. In America, when you are invited to be someone else’s guest at a fundraising event, you generally donate something. I have noticed in Romania that many guests don’t feel any obligation, or have a desire, to contribute personally.

I used to think we were doing something wrong in that we didn’t get more individual support at the event.  But now I think that it is just a matter of custom. People are accustomed to doing that here.

Civil society is made up of individuals, not corporations. I see a lot of Corporate Social Responsibility in this country but I don’t see a lot of Personal Social Responsibility. It is nice when people tell us how much they admire what we are doing — but it means a lot more when they make a contribution, especially if it comes out of their own pocket, or their own personal time.

Of course I am thrilled that Nicolas Cage is coming to the ball. Movie stars get so many of these invitations. I don’t know Nick Cage  personally, but the fact that he is willing to take time from his busy work schedule to support OvidiuRo’s work is very, very gratifying.

Author: Alexandra Crisu

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