First, she began recruiting poor, uneducated women for jobs. “Mostly it’s cleaning,” she says. ‘The city of Bacau has hired them to clean streets, and we hire them to clean offices and schools.” For a mother to be in the program, she must place her children in school-they can’t be on the street begging.
Second, she organized a shelter and remedial school for the youngsters. Called a stefanita, it accommodates between 40 and 50 children daily. Children can attend the school regardless of whether their mother is in the program. “We’ll take any kids who can’t get into a regular school,” she explains. After one year, she estimates the educational effort already is reaching 30% of the unschooled children in Bacau between the ages of 5 and 12.Hawke’s success stories include Alex, “now 10 and in the second grade. It’s the first time he has ever been to school. He’s a little hyperactive but doing well,” she reports.
In the mothers’ program, she’s especially pleased with the case of Marcisa, an unmarried 24-year-old mother of two who came to her with a ninth-grade education. Marcisa is now a teaching assistant in a project school and supporting her family.
Hawke also established what she calls the American Learning Center School, offering English courses to middle-class Romanian children. English, she points out, “is important for everyone in Romania. Even for service jobs like taxi driving and restaurant work, it’s a huge advantage in helping people move from the periphery of society to its mainstream, which is one of our goals.”
As a way to make learning English more fun, she initiated a four-week summer drama camp for disadvantaged children and high-school students (who performed scenes from Romeo and Juliet). “It was wonderful,” remembers Hawke. “At first, the kids signed up only for a week, but they kept coming back, and we had to hire extra teachers.”
Hawke’s friend, Wendy Phillips, one of two actresses who came over to Bacau from New York to help run the program, says, “Leslie is always astonishing in what she manages to accomplish. She gets an idea and finds ways to make it happen, regardless of the obstacles.”
“Leslie has a real belief in her mission,” adds Carol Tannenhauser, who works at The Doe Fund in New York City and traveled to Romania to observe Hawke’s projects. “It’s as if she goes into a zone. We followed her into the Gypsy camps, which were filthy, windowless hovels. I had the urge to flee, but Leslie marched right in and started recruiting. She’s up against tremendous odds, but I love the fact that she’s providing services to both the children and their mothers.”
No one is prouder of Hawke and her work in Romania than her only child. “My mother is an exciting, passionate, and involved human being,” says Ethan. “She’s a great role model for my children and for me.”
At first glance, Bacau may seem a long way from Fort Worth, Texas, where Hawke grew up, the daughter of Howard Green, a local politician who became a county judge. Yet Hawke, a child of divorce at a time when divorce was a stigma, observes, “I always felt a little out of place there, a little different, which may be why I’m so comfortable in Romania.” Immersing herself in the sense of community provided by the local Fort Worth theater school, she took drama courses and worked on productions. Yet at 16 Hawke left her theatrical dreams behind and enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, where she met and married Jim Hawke. When Leslie was 20 and Ethan 18 months old, the family moved to Connecticut, where Jim earned a graduate degree in mathematics at Yale-he eventually became an actuary- and she received a B.A. in psychology from the University of Connecticut in Storrs.Her marriage, however, was short-lived. The pair divorced in 1974, and in 1982 Hawke wed Patrick Powers, a management consultant. Although they broke up 10 years later, she says she owes much of her social commitment to his influence.
Of her work in Romania, Hawke says, “I feel like I was preparing for this for the first half of my adult life.” What’s more, she doesn’t miss the creature comforts of home. During her first year in Bacau, she lived in an impersonal Soviet-bloc apartment building, but now shares a small, comfortable apartment behind the American School with a Romanian colleague and her daughter. Hawke, who augments the Peace Corps’ $180-a-month salary with her own savings, says, “I have my work friends in Bacau, and my weekend friends in Bucharest, a truly international city with gorgeous buildings, restaurants, and a lot going on. There’s a spirit in Romania that’s wonderful. It suits my personality.”
So much so that Hawke intends to stay on indefinitely, even though it means separation from her son and daughter-in-law, Uma Thurman, and their two small children, Maya Ray, 4, and Levon, almost 1. But Ethan visits Hawke at least once a year, and she comes back to the States periodically to fundraise. What’s more, to make sure that Hawke still stays connected to the side ofher that loves pampering, her daughter-in-law has given her wonderful Christmas presents: a knockout red Gucci cocktail dress, which she wears to dress-up events, and cashmere sweaters and jewelry. “Uma has a gift for gifts,” says Hawke. “The level of presents I have gotten has gone up 100% since she married my son.”
Even so, Hawke doesn’t mind roughing it. In fact, she insists that she has never been happier. “Sure, I miss the theater,” she says, but she has gotten a great deal back in return. “I’ve lost weight walking everywhere. And I’ve been able to use what I’ve learned in the course of my varied work life and as a white, middle-class, fairly well-educated American.”
Above all, the Peace Corps has allowed Hawke to feel useful. “This has been very satisfying,” she muses. “One of my favorite maxims is, ‘Do the good you have the power to do.’ I feel like I’m finally doing that. Granted, it doesn’t amount to much in the scheme of things, but at least I’m on the right track.”
Tax-deductible donations can be sent to The Alex Fund, a 501(c) (3) charity, at 924 West End Avenue, #25, New York, NY 10025.8
BY MARJORIE ROSEN
MARJORIE ROSEN IS A FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO THIS MAGAZINE.
This article is reproduced by the permission of People magazine, in which it was originally published. Copyright 2002
The photographs are reproduced with the kind permission of Robert Wallis. Copyright 2002.