Gabriela has saved up 3 lei for a doll. In two months’ time, she aims to collect 97 lei more and thus save up the amount she needs for the doll she wants.

She made this plan at the financial education workshop held at the Community Center in Carani, Timiș County, which is part of the“ Nesting a brighter future for children” program, implemented by the United Way Foundation and funded by the Globalworth Foundation. Other kids have other wishes. A phone. A pen. A Barbie doll. A football pitch. Books, an iPhone, a ball, a football cup. A poney, a drone, a real horse. Each child writes down the object of their desire on a sheet of paper. Then, they draw it and write why they want it: “to play,” to invest,” “because it’s helpful for me in school.” They write down the price and estimate the number of weeks they need to be able to gather the amount they lack, after assessing their preexistent savings. The kids are very active in this class and each one of them is eager to talk about their plan and motivation.

Before the activity, the children washed their hands and had the snack provided at the center. Alexandra Bechira, the workshop coordinator, first introduced them to the history of money. Then, they roleplayed bartering. They exchanged a pair of scissors for a glue stick, two pencils for an eraser, a hand disinfectant for a pen. At the end, they also solved a crossword puzzle on the same topic. “But when do we get to do more math?”, the kids ask.

Since this is the first meeting at the center after the International Children’s Day, Alexandra hands out diplomas and red balloons. They can take them home and this news generates a wave of noisy glee. A balloon pops and several kids volunteer to give the girl their own balloons to the girl left without.

The Carani Community Center is part of the “Nesting a brighter future for children”. Its main mission is to prevent school dropouts by involving the entire community and creating a sustainable network of children, parents, and teachers. Each week, the children take part in informal activities, share a meal, and are supported with the necessary materials.

“We organize activities in a more playful and more interesting manner than in school, specifically to increase their motivation for learning. We also touch upon career orientation, go on trips, do drama, dance, sports. For instance, we took all the kids in Timiș to a fire prevention company. They would have us over each month and teach them resuscitation maneuvers, what to do in case of a fire, how to use the extinguisher,” explains Ada Gabor, area manager.

The Parents’ Academy was implemented for the parents. Under the slogan “Involved parents, confident children,” talks and activities are held, concerning positive communication with the child and kids’ needs. Teachers also take part in workshops and reading clubs, which offer them additional tools for working with children in underprivileged families.

Gabriela is in the first grade and she’s been taking part in the program from the very beginning, in 2017. In turn, two other girls who share a house with Gabriela and her parents have joined the program. Carmen is the oldest of them – she’s 13-years-old and a foster. Bianca is a niece of theirs whose mother died, so Gabriela’s parents also took her up as a foster. The younger Larisa also lives with them – her parents work in Timișoara and don’t have the time to take her to school and care for her.The girls’ mother tells her the process of adaptation was difficult, when she took them in. For Carmen in particular, as she had suffered from stress for a long time, because of the many changes and lacks in their lifestyle, as well as the numerous uncertainties.

The girls head home together after the activity at the center. It’s not far away. The ‘home’ is more of a 1960s building that once housed offices, behind some grain warehouses. Now abandoned, it was provided to them as temporary accommodation by the company wher the father works as a guard.

Gabriela hugs her mother. Then, the girls go outside. They play on the swings. They jump rope and play air pingpong. They’ve got rabbits, cats, chickens. Corina finds three eggs and carries them inside the house on the palms of her hands, taking small steps. I ask her how the online activities went during the pandemic. “I wasn’t that happy.” Her mother is also relieved school is back in person. “It’s good they don’t spend so much time staring at the phone; they play among themselves, they talk, do sports.” In the beginning of the pandemic, all the children enrolled in the United Way program received either a tablet or a laptop, to avoid interrupting the activities. Now, the only online meetings are the weekly ones with Eliza, who helps the kids with their homework.

After they come back inside, Gabriela rinses a bowl and empties a bag of corn puffs in. She seems to caress them with the tips of her fingers, then takes one. She swirls it in the air like an airplane and shoves it in her mouth with amusement. She then extends the bowl to Larisa and they talk about homework, classmates, and savings with their mother.

“Even if you’re a cleaning lady or a shepherd, you still need to study.”

“If someone comes in and asks for 20 kilos of cheese…” Corina adds.

“Well, yeah, you have to know additions, give the person what they asked for, give them their change.”

Suddenly, Gabriela stands up from her seat by the corn puff bowl and rummages her backpack. “Look,” she tells her mother, showing her the diploma she got at the center and looking at her with a mix of pride and caution. But the mother smiles widely and makes a faint gesture towards her. Gabriela jumps into her arms. Today was a good day.

*the names of children pictured in this story have been changed, to protect their identity

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

“Nesting a brighter future for children” is one of the main educational programmes 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.