Dear fellow believers in the power of education to transform lives,
I first touched down in Romania as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2000, assigned to the NGO Fundația de Sprijin Comunitar (FSC) in Bacău. Soon after, Wendy Kahn and I set up a US non-profit that we named “The Alex Fund” after the first street kid I got to know, in order to encourage my US friends to support my efforts to get kids like him off the streets and into school.
In 2001, a small grant from USAID made it possible for FSC to start an education program for the children and a work training program for their mothers. About that time, I just happened to meet a woman named Maria Gheorghiu, a Bucharest teacher trained by the Soros Foundation in progressive pedagogy. Somehow, I managed to persuade her to leave Bucharest in order to put her training into action with impoverished kids in the provincial northeast.
Shortly after arriving in Bacau, Maria found a sympathetic high school principal and convinced her to allow us to create a classroom for street kids in Bacau’s most prestigious high school. Together with a small team of recent graduates from the local college, we recruited 60 kids from the street and three nearby ghettos. To the surprise of the local authorities, the kids came every day. And before long, Maria was getting requests from village mayors and school directors to start similar programs in other communities.
When my Peace Corps service ended, Maria and I established the NGO Asociatia OvidiuRo and moved our office to Bucharest. The programs grew organically for the next several years as we transitioned from USAID funding to the Romanian corporate sector.
Several years later, on reviewing the outcomes of the children we had recruited early on, the evidence was undeniable: the younger the children were when we recruited them, the more likely they were to still be in school. Consequently, in 2010, we narrowed our focus to early education.
There was a common stereotype that the poor, mostly labeled “Gypsies”, would not send their children to kindergarten, but our experience was just the opposite. It was easy to get poor parents to register their children if the school staff was welcoming. What was difficult was keeping attendance up during the long frigid winter. So we made a deal with mayors. If the local council would provide the children with outerwear, OvidiuRo would give food coupons to their parents IF THEY BROUGHT THEIR CHILDREN TO SCHOOL EVERY DAY. This proved so effective that in 2016 the Romanian government turned this methodology into a nationally funded program. As a result, preschool attendance – a crucial first step in academic success, especially among disadvantaged children, dramatically increased across Romania.
OvidiuRo could then focus more on the quality of the early education, particularly in rural areas where kindergartens were mostly devoid of children’s books and teachers had not been trained in the art of fostering early literacy. For years, OvidiuRo had offered workshop intensives to encourage child-centered pedagogy for teachers. Maria designed a system whereby teachers attend training in order to qualify for an allotment of age-appropriate books, including books that the children could take home. Even the pandemic didn’t stop progress – teacher training and networking went online and became ever more expansive. Today, over half of public kindergartens in Romania participate in this program.
I’m proud of the influence OvidiuRo has had in making the authorities, classroom teachers, AND the general public aware of the importance of educating ALL of Romania’s children, not just the wellborn, gifted, and talented. Maria and her tiny team continue to inspire teachers, cajole administrators, collaborate with social workers and parish priests, visit parents, and sit on the floor with kids – sharing the magic of books and the art of storytelling.
Over the past two decades, The Alex Fund has been a consistent source of financial support to OvidiuRo’s ground-breaking programs. I am especially proud to note that it also supports the work of two other pioneering NGOs, started by former OvidiuRo staff: Reality Check (www.realitycheck.ro/?lang=en), which evaluates social programs and runs community development projects; and PeStop (www.pestop.org), which provides menstrual hygiene products and health education to vulnerable girls and women.
As I pass the baton of Alex Fund leadership to Raluca Gold-Fuchs – a long-time member of our Board of Directors, a Romanian-American, and a font of enthusiasm and resourcefulness – I know she will connect with others who appreciate the power of education to transform lives.