There’s chaos in the simultaneous learning classroom. It’s teacher Gabriela Matei’s fourth day with the children in Șemlacu Mare, Timiș County, after she was transferred from another village nearby. The nine children, ages six to nine, call for her once every few seconds. “I feel like you have to work on their behavior a lot, after the six months they spent at home. They spend four hours in school and the other twenty at home, that’s where you have to put in the work,” says the teacher with thirty years’ experience in the system.

The teacher sees nine-year-old Teodora, in the third grade, as the most responsible one in the class: “All these little ones follow your lead, you have to be a role model,” she tells her. Next to her, three other children in the prep grade, three in the first grade, and two in the second grade are studying. One of the children in the first grade is older than Teodora, but started school much later, and only after the United Way Foundation intervened to have his birth certificate issued.

In fact, most of the children studying here come from families affected by various social issues: low incomes, precarious living conditions, abandonment, single-parent families. It’s a common situation in rural areas: one third of Romanian children live below the poverty threshold, according to the National Statistics Institute. And the poverty risk rate for households with two adults and three or more children is huge (61.9%), according to Eurostat.

The children are all over the classroom, screaming and crawling under the desks. “The mission of schools is to have us become model citizens for our society,” the teacher tells the children, before allowing them to go on recess. They all run out into the yard, where they play on the swings and slides.

After school hours, the children eat their lunches, packed by the Foundation, then go to an adjoining room, for the “project”, where Vierka Tușinovschi, the teacher who’s been working in the community for many years, has prepared brushes, paint, and sheets of paper for them. The children have their temperature checked, are reminded of the social distancing rules, and take their seats at the table in an orderly manner, the atmosphere is more relaxed, the chaos quiets down. The room looks different from the one they’ve just come in from: the floor is colourful, the cabinet shelves are filled with books and games.

After colouring, they take their papers outside and pop water-filled balloons onto the paintings, in order to see how the colours mix. One of the children is fascinated: “Miss, if you blend pink and grey, you get a sort of…” He’s looking for a name for the new colour, but can’t find one. “A sort of pink-grey.” Everybody laughs.

Shy at first, Teodora starts talking to me: “I want to become an athlete, I like gymnastics. I made it up a long time ago and then I saw it on TV and realized it’s called gymnastics. I can do splits and cartwheels and bend over backwards. My mom said when I get to the eleventh grade, she’ll send me to training, ‘cause I can’t right now, ‘cause I haven’t finished school.” Before I get to answer, she jumps out of her seat and starts a demonstration.

Teodora lives with her mother, father, grandmother, two older sisters and two younger brothers (David, who is also her classmate, and Andrei, a two-year-old child with Down syndrome). Another older brother is working in Spain, and one sister has started her own family, married, with two children.

Before leaving school, Teodora carefully packs the food leftovers in two casseroles, which she places in a plastic bag. When she gets home, she gives her mother the bag, washes her hands and mask, then starts doing her homework alongside David. She has to write down two stanzas of the national anthem, “Rise up, Romanian”.

Teodora was enrolled in kindergarten in 2015, with the help of the association. At the time, there was no transportation to school and kindergarten for the children in Șemlacu Mic, so many of them stayed at home. Elena, the children’s mother, recounts: “That’s when we made friends [with the foundation staff]. She started drawing, talking, getting to know other children, she changed. Before that, she wouldn’t talk to anyone and cry. Then, they helped us out with firewood, then they bought the children bags, notebooks, warm lunches.”

The two older sisters also arrive home. Teodora asks one of them for lipstick and vanishes into an adjoining room. She returns in a blue dress and looks for her sandals. She admires herself in the mirror, then asks me to take her picture alongside her sisters. After an improvised photo shoot outside the house, we say our goodbyes, and I promise to send her the pictures.

Andreea Iștoc, coordinator of one of the local community centers, is also the president of the C.O.P.I.I. Association for Social Services, which first intervened in the community in 2015. They’ve been working with United Way since 2017, but this year was the most challenging one. “When the pandemic started, we said ‘OK, what do we do?’ We put together some paper-based teaching kits for the children with no internet access, because very few of them have that – and of these, most use their mothers’ phones, but they are off at work most of the day. We devised the kits to last for one month, with one activity per week. Ms. Vierka visited the community every Thursday, met with the children, talked to them, learned about their problems – for instance, if they still had phone credit -, gave them materials. We then also helped the community with social coupons, various things: masks, disinfectants.”

There are 20 children in the Șemlacu Mare and Șemlacu Mic communities benefiting from the project, but their brothers and sisters also often take part in the informal activities at the center. I ask Andreea what the plans are for the upcoming weeks. “We want to continue, but don’t know what’s going to happen. If the schools close down because of Covid cases, there’s nothing we can do, because we won’t be able to visit the communities. In any case, we’ll continue online, too, we’ll be far better prepared now, we have IT equipment for the children.”

Documenting this material was made possible through the help of the United Way Foundation and the financial support of the Globalworth Foundation

“Education, the core of community change” is one of the main educational problems undertaken by United Way România. Its core goal is to support 12 day centers founded by United Way România, which work as community hubs.

The program, funded by the Globalworth Foundation, prevents school dropouts in poor urban and rural communities, where the children’s education is not the top priority, but rather the daily struggle to find the necessary resources for survival. Its integrated approach consists of actions focusing on the child’s needs. Parents, teachers, volunteers, and local NGOs work together to solve the issue of school dropouts, which is not the child’s problem, but the problem of the entire community.

The 12 community centers in Urlați, Fundulea, Băicoi, Jilava, Pădureni, Cluj-Napoca (Pata-Rât), Timișoara (School no. 20) and 5 communes in county Timiș (Sânandrei, Mașloc, Carani, Șemlacu Mare and Bucovăț), have benefitted 2,700 children, 2,160 parents and 540 teachers, throughout the program’s five-year span, in over 1,700 educational activities.