September 2016: Maria Gheorghiu and Leslie Hawke received The 2016 ALIANTA Award for Humanitarian Work and Social Involvement

OvidiuRo cofounders Leslie Hawke & Maria Gheorghiu received Alianta’s 2016 Award for Achievement in Humanitarian Work and Social Involvement on September 27, at The ALIANTA Award Gala 2016 in Washington.

lh-eh-mg-la-aliantaThe ALIANTA Award is an acknowledgement of the long history of fruitful partnership between Gheorghiu and Hawke in fighting poverty through promoting the access to education of the poorest children of Romania.

The Award for Achievement in Humanitarian Work and Social Involvement was handed by Ethan Hawke, having Vice-President Joe Biden, Ambassador Hans Klemm and other political and business key-people as witnesses.

Pictured L to R, Amb. Mark Gitenstein; Maria Gheorghiu; Vice President Joe Biden; Daniela Kammrath; Leslie Hawke.

Pictured L to R: Amb. Mark Gitenstein; Maria Gheorghiu; Vice President Joe Biden; Daniela Kammrath; Leslie Hawke.


Here are some excerpts of Ethan Hawke’s introduction to the Award and of the OvidiuRo cofounders’ acceptance speeches.

Ethan Hawke: “15 years ago Leslie and Maria started what was a small, out of the mainstream organization in a corner of Romania, experimenting with ways to provide poor kids who, without an education, had no future, a way to reach their potential as productive, contributing members of society.

Maria brought many skills to their work, but crucially she brought an understanding of every level of the educational system and the people who inhabit it – and how to gain their trust and cooperation.

They started the Every Child in Preschool program in 2010: it gives $12 in food coupons each month to the families of very poor children if their 3 to 5 year old children attend preschool every day, and provides a range of services that told these kids and their families that they were truly welcome in school. The results – consistent with the social science research – were increased attendance, greater literacy, and reduction in the drop out rates.

They saw teachers and officials who had been skeptical, begin to believe that these kids could learn and succeed in the classroom, and parents for whom school had not been a priority, take pride in their children’s growing knowledge and skills, and see real hope for a better life for them.

They knew they were on to something, and it became their goal to have early childhood education for poor kids national policy by 2020. And in 2015 they took a first step, seeking legislation specifically authorizing county councils to adopt our program.

The legislature responded with more than they had asked for: recognizing the value of the program parliament voted to fund the food coupon element of the program on a national basis for ALL of Romania’s neediest children – $13 million in the 2016 budget.

The Every Child in Preschool law was signed one year ago – on the very day of Alianta’s 2015 Awards Gala – five years ahead of their goal. Now Ovidiu Ro faces the extraordinary challenge of making the implementation of the program work not just in 45 pilot communities serving 3000 kids, but in 3000 communities with over 100,000 kids nationwide.

Leslie Hawke: Thank you, I’d like to especially thank Jim Rosapepe – for coming up the idea for a USAID grant program that partnered Am and Ro NGOs, and which made it possible for us to start our first program in 2001, and to Mark – for his astute strategic advice, and to Libby for always saying ‘yes’.

Maria Gheorghiu: I would also like to thank Amb. Klemm, for promoting early childhood education by visiting poor communities not once, but twice in the past 9 months, and you know, where the American Ambassador goes, the county authorities and the media are always right in front of him! And to WPK for many things, but most of all for being such an inspiration to the development of our curriculum.

And of course to Leslie. There is a good side and a bad side to our working together for so many years. The good side is that you accomplish things you never imagined and you couldn’t do alone – sort of like the American Dream in reverse! The bad side is that you only ever get half an award.

Even so it really feels good to be recognized by such smart, well-informed people who care about Romania.

LH But the recognition feels a little premature. Romania is among the countries with the most progressive child protection policies & legislation in Europe. Romania is fast to reform its laws, but very slow to implement the reforms on the ground. And that worries us. Food coupons are not magic and early education is not a vaccine against dropping out of school when you’re 13. Last summer our team visited 99 villages to find out how the legislation was being implemented –and there were two things I observed that really struck me:

  1. There are a LOT of NGOs and international orgs doing good work in RO. It’s like there really are a 1000 points of light out there – lights which I know many of you have helped create, but the truth is, it’s still dark out there in rural Romania. We, meaning Romanian NGOS, simply must find a way to work in a more coordinated and strategic way.
  2. The biggest difference between communities where there are signs of progress and all the ones that seem completely stunted – and that’s access to semi-skilled jobs. Without that, all the early education in the world can’t make much difference in life outcomes.

MG:     Fortunately, and this I know first hand, the government circumstances are very favorable this year and a full integrated, intelligently crafted anti-poverty package is in the works.

Still, what started out as a passionate personal mission – getting every poor child in preschool – is going to take time and flexibility and additional resources to become a widespread national reality.

Our goal is still to really get every poor child in kindergarten by 2020. And maybe thanks to some of you, there will be jobs and opportunity es for them when eventually they graduate. Thank you.

ALIANTA is a 501(c)3, non-partisan alliance of organizations and professionals working to strengthen the cultural, economic and security ties between Romania and the US. Its mission is to empower Romanian and American institutions and individuals through education, networking, and facilitating opportunities that benefit the citizens of both nations. The Alex Fund itself is an inspiring manifestation of Romanian-American collaboration, uniting those who want to give back to their home country with others who have never even been to Romania but understand that poor children everywhere deserve the hope of a better future.

The ALIANTA event proved to be a celebration of The Alex Fund’s seminal role in offering impoverished children the possibility of a future as educated, productive citizens through Fiecare Copil in Gradinita, a program piloted by The Alex Fund’s sister organization Asociatia OvidiuRo, and expanded by the Romanian government into a nationwide initiative in 2016.

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