October 4, 2001 - World Learning: GATA, DISPUS SI CAPABIL: Ready, Willing and Able Bacau
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October 4, 2001 - World Learning: GATA, DISPUS SI CAPABIL: Ready, Willing and Able Bacau
GATA, DISPUS SI CAPABIL: Ready, Willing and Able Bacau
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GATA, DISPUS SI CAPABIL: Ready, Willing and Able Bacau!*
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GATA, DISPUS SI CAPABIL: Ready, Willing and Able Bacau!
Last March, Fundatia de Sprijin Comunitar (Foundation for Community Support, or FSC) of Bacau was awarded a $62,500 RASP grant from World Learning, financed by USAID/Romania, to partner with The Doe Fund of New York. The grant is supporting a program for mothers of children that routinely beg on the streets-designed after the Doe Fund's "Ready, Willing & Able" program in New York. FSC and the Doe Fund are contributing $43,000 in private funds to this effort. The following article was written by Peace Corps Volunteer Leslie Hawke working with FSC.
Bacau, Romania is in many ways a modern, thriving city. But the daily practice of young children begging on the streets to support their families has become a small epidemic here - in part because they make pretty good money. But as a result of their work on the streets, these children receive no formal education whatsoever. In a few years they will become the illiterate, glue-sniffing teenagers that live in sewers. (In the early 90's these street children were from orphanages, but today the majority come from impoverished, severely dysfunctional families.) When I arrived in Bacau a year ago as a Peace Corps volunteer I took one of these kids, named Alex, to the FSC shelter. They cleaned him up, gave him a nice bed and real meals and he was exuberant. After three days his mother showed up absolutely furious that we had taken away her source of income. It turns out that virtually all the little ones that are out begging in Bacau are sent there by relatives to support their families.
A few days later, Alex's mother saw me having lunch with my colleagues at an outdoor cafe. She railed at me in Romanian: "Why me?" she asked, "why are you picking on me when there are so many other kids doing the same thing? How am I supposed to live?" Well, she had a point. We decided that the only way we could really help these kids was by helping their mothers first.
I knew that the Doe Fund of New York had done an extraordinary job of training and finding employment for homeless men and women (among the poorest of the poor in New York). We talked with the leaders at Doe who were enthusiastic about helping us adapt their model to the needs of Romania.
With the consultation of The Doe Fund, the project became a five-part initiative to:
1.Educate the authorities on the issues and involve them in a community-wide action plan, 2.Create an educational track for these kids in a public school, 3.Start a training program for their mothers in which we pay the women to attend a 3 month counselling and work training program; the city helps find them jobs, and when they stay employed for 3 months, they get a $100 bonus, 4.Initiate a public awareness campaign to encourage people to give to organizations that help these children and not directly to the children on the street, 5.Develop a fund-raising strategy (for local support as well as support from the Romanian American community) to keep the programs running after the USAID grant ends next spring.
We started the project in April by taking a delegation of 13 Bacau officials and other community leaders to New York City for 10 days to find out why New York DOESN'T have a child begging problem; we visited New York's best child protection programs and observed how New York's organizations and agencies work together to successfully avoid this form of child exploitation.
The delegation was comprised of eight high ranking officials and several directors of Bacau non-profits. It included: the President of the Country Council, Deputy Prefect, Vice Mayor, Director of the Department of Child Protection, regional director of the Ministry of Education, Deputy Chief of Police and the publisher of the local newspaper, Desteptarea. The Doe Fund did an extraordinary job in arranging our itinerary so that we saw the very best of New York's network of social service agencies and non-profits. We also spent a full day visiting the Doe programs in action, talking with their clients and employees and meeting with their founder and other leaders. It was a fascinating 10 days, for me as well as the Romanians, and to my own surprise, I found myself feeling extremely proud of New York.
And the process actually seems to have "worked." We have received an avalanche of support from the authorities since they returned from New York. There have been over a DOZEN articles in the local newspaper, radio interviews with the delegates and inter-agency planning meetings initiated by the City Council to deal with the issue. The City also gave us the part-time assistance of two social workers to help FSC's own social worker collect data on the street kids and their families. The Mother's Program is now co-directed by our own psychologist and the Director of the city's "Maternal Center." The school district has also provided us with a classroom for these kids (a first in Bacau).
We initiated the Public Awareness Campaign - to encourage people to give to reputable charities and not to little children on the street - on the 4th of July on the steps of the Prefectura (think City Hall, more or less). Saatchi & Saatchi of Bucharest helped us prepare a public awareness campaign. An essential element of this campaign is to capture the attention of the public -- in order to get Bacauans to begin to channel their generosity through reputable organizations, not to perpetuate the practice of child begging by donations to individual children on the street.
The American Embassy provided us with a big flag and red, white & blue banners. We blasted Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn from the speakers and then the children from our shelter sang 'Oh Susannah'. In lieu of fireworks, we ended the celebration by raffling off a hundred dollar bill and giving out 1000 Cokes, compliments of Coca-Cola Romania. With true American ingenuity, the local Coca-Cola distributor managed to drape a huge Fanta banner behind the stage and above the doors of the Prefectura. It somewhat "overshadowed" the flag, but in today's "global marketplace" that seemed almost appropriate...
THE MOTHER'S PROGRAM: Gata, Dispus, si Capabil (Ready, Willing & Able) started in July. We registered 12 mothers for the program but at the first meeting only three women showed up (fewer than the number of reporters present!). Some of them had not been able to find the building and the others had apparently lost their nerve. But with a little more outreach on the part of the social workers, 10 women came to the second meeting. After two weeks we had to "close" the class at 13 mothers. (The others will be able to start in the next class in October.) It is utterly amazing to me how a group of uneducated women, some of whom actually live on the street with their children, are so open and receptive to good old American group counseling techniques. Not one of the 13 has missed a session. Critics like to say, "Well, that's just because you're paying them to come." Yes, we do pay them the equivalent of $1.30 for each 4-hour session they attend, but we don't pay them to bring their children to our classroom. And in reality, $1.30 is a LOT less than their children can make on the street in four hours.
We are counseling and training the women to (1) prepare them for paid employment and (2) help them enroll and keep their children in school. I have been very happily surprised to find that they all have the potential to be wage earners; they are eager to work; they care deeply about their children; they DO want their kids to get an education; and they DON'T want them on the streets begging - begging is their last resort given that the economic and social obstacles are so overwhelmingly stacked against them. For example, three of the women are literally living in the park with their children. When I first heard this I thought they were exaggerating - but they are not. (We are trying to find them housing through the mayor's office before winter sets in.)
The barriers to their employment are also considerable. Most of them never finished the 8th grade. But to work on a sewing machine in a Romanian factory you HAVE to have an 8th grade diploma. To manicure nails or be a waitress, you have to have a high school diploma! One of the younger women, Mary, only went to 8th grade and yet she translates for me in the mother's meetings -- but she's not qualified to serve food in a restaurant. Thus, the only jobs that they can realistically aspire to are house cleaning and baby-sitting. (We are in the process of designing and trying to fund a job placement service to connect them with potential employers.)
Eleven of the women are Gypsies and the other two are married to Gypsies. They live on the periphery of both the Roma (Gypsy) and Romanian communities, being accepted by neither. My Gypsy friend, Roxana, is an English teacher in one of the best Bucharest high schools and co-director of the Peace Corps language program. Last Wednesday she addressed our participants. I wanted them to meet someone who had "made it out of the ghetto" and become highly educated, but was still very much a Gypsy at heart! Roxana talked about her background and gave them plenty of opportunity to talk about their own lives. By the end of the session there was not a dry eye in the room, including the social workers' and my own. It was a very moving and cathartic experience for all of us.
We have opened the "Stefanita" classroom for the children who are not eligible to attend regular school (due to a variety of arcane regulations). It is a large sunny room in the city's central high school donated by the Department of Education. At the principal's request, the Mayor's maintenance department painted the walls and replaced the cracked parquet floor. The American School of Bucharest contributed books and teaching materials. For the children who are eligible to attend regular school, we are providing school supplies, shoes, and after-school tutoring (as an alternative to "after-school begging").
Last Friday we inaugurated the classroom by inviting the mothers and their kids, the school authorities, and the local press to Stefanita. All 13 mothers and 30 of their children showed up. You can imagine how moved I was to see kids I first encountered begging in the streets when I arrived in Bacau - now sitting in a circle in the classroom and playing on the school playground. It was the first time many of them had ever been in a classroom - and they looked proud to be there. I know it will be a challenge to keep them coming throughout the year when they are used to hanging out on the streets all day, but the program director, Maria Gheorghiu, is an experienced and very creative educator, trained in the US thanks to a Soros grant. She has designed a curriculum that keeps in mind these children's backgrounds every step of the way. And the Ministry of Education has assigned us an absolutely wonderful teacher. We were hopeful that they would cover her salary but that didn't work out for this year. But they tell us it will be in next year's budget. We have also hired one of the mothers, Mary, to assist the teacher. So one of our beneficiaries is now one of our employees! There will be food available when the children arrive in the morning and a hot lunch in the school cafeteria-- and our social workers will continue to help the mothers to do whatever is required in order to keep their children in school.
Naturally, we already need additional support to further develop these programs. It looks like we will have more children than we originally budgeted for and the mothers have additional essential needs (like basic health insurance, contraceptives and in some cases, housing). We need a program director to set up the cleaning and babysitting referral service. And clearly we are not going to be able to "graduate" these women from the program and send them on their merry way... We-FSC, the social workers, teachers, and other staff-have really made a long-term commitment to support these women's efforts to make a better life for themselves-which is exactly how The Doe Fund operates in New York. And I see now that this is the biggest reason for its success rate with its "graduates".
The Ready, Willing and Able program continues to serve as a crucial role model in many ways. There was a lot of initial scepticism here, especially among the press. It helps to be able to refer to the success of the Doe Fund with "people who have an average of five felony convictions and histories of major substance abuse." Impoverished gypsy mothers are no more 'hopeless' than the former street bums in Ready, Willing & Able. And the knowledge of this gives my colleagues at FSC a foundation of confidence. I think it also gives the city authorities confidence in us, since they saw and talked with formerly crack-addicted women in New York who had lost custody of their children due to negligence - and now had their kids back, an apartment, a job and genuine self-respect.
At this point the program is going better than even I expected. I knew that taking a group of local leaders to New York to see our partner's program in action was a good idea, but I never imagined it would result in such a genuine spirit of cooperation. Not only do they respond to our requests, they offer help. Of course, as we get to know the women better we find more and more areas of need. But the basic decency of these women and their love and concern for their children makes the work extraordinarily rewarding.
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