Cristi is holding the drawing in his hands and proudly presents it to his audience – nine children and one woman, seated on plastic chairs, in the middle of an ample yard, under the shade of a tree. On paper, a few tiny humans are walking in line toward a big black building, with blue windows and a red roof. It’s September 14th, and the first day of school ended just a few hours ago. Cristi and his colleagues at the “Ana și Copiii” Community Center in Urlați had to draw it. They each drew whatever they remembered. Most of them drew the building and their mates. Some in masks, others without them. In turn, each child presented their drawing, then the educator asked them questions, encouraged them to speak when they stumbled, and set the tone for the applause following each presentation.

The “Ana și Copiii” Community Center in Urlați cares for children in the local community, prioritarily selecting them based on their family income. The Center is supported by one of the main educational programs run by United Way România,“Nesting a brighter future for children”, which seeks to prevent school dropout in poor urban and rural communities.

Cristi is nine-years-old and in the third grade. He’s been coming to the center every day for over two years. He’s being raised by his mother and step-father. Over the past two years, his father worked for a construction company in Bucharest, but he recently lost his job and is now a day worker in Urlați. His mother Luminița is a housewife, but she volunteers at the center on a daily basis. She cleans, tends to the garden, and cooks the children’s food. She usually takes Dana along, Cristi’s younger, one-year-old sister.

Dana is chasing a kitten around a big tree in the yard. The other kids are putting the chairs and tables in the yard back in their place. They’re getting ready for lunch. Luminița, Cristi’s mother, comes out of the house with several full plates, which she quickly sets down onto the tables. French fries, fried eggs, and crumbled cheese on top. It’s the first time the yard falls silent. The only sound comes from the metal cutlery, hard at work in the colorful plastic plates. The children receive two meals per day at the center. Lunch and a snack before they leave.

The silence ends quickly. It’s followed by a round of charades, coordinated by the educator – they’re supposed to be guessing animals. You can hear the children laughing at any wrong answer from the street. Each week, the center’s social educators and volunteers, some of them former program attendees, organize informal educational activities for the children. Aside from the activities, they provide them with clothes, school supplies, personal hygiene items.

By the gate, Ioana and Cristina, both slightly worked up, are watching the children getting ready to leave. They’re 14 and 12-years-old, respectively, and they, too, went through the program at the center. Ioana waits for Cristi to finish, so they can go home together. The road is short. Within a few minutes, they’re outside the building they live in. Cristi lives with his parents, three sisters, and one brother, in a two-room-apartment. The people at the center helped them out with some resources to make their life easier in the cramped home. They’ve donated a washing machine, a fridge, a couch; they sometimes help them out with money for food.

Once they reach the living-room, Cristi and Ioana start a kendama competition. It’s not really a competition – Cristi is very skilled with his hands and, unlike Ioana, gets nearly all the tricks he tries right. They get bored fairly quickly and decide to head to the nearby park for a game of table tennis.

They meet other kids at the park and start a double game. The boys know each other from the center and the game heats up pretty quickly. The children who come to the center are generally selected based on their parents’ income. The threshold is usually set at 450 to 650 lei per family member. These can be complemented by extremely precarious living conditions, single-parent family situations, children being raised by grandparents or older siblings, or the parents’ delicate medical conditions.

The boys Cristi plays ping-pong with are older and, at this age, you can feel the difference in a sports game. His opponents feel this and let him win a serve here and there. It also helps that two of the paddles and the only ball they have – essential resources for the kids in the central park in Urlați -, are his.

*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.