A group of seven children in the fourth grade are working around three tables in the library of Primary School no. 20 in Timișoara. Each of them is making a pencil stand shaped as a tree trunk, which they’re building out of cardboard cones from toilet paper rolls. Some are quietly at work, others are whispering among themselves and giggling.

Ioana is in the latter group, delighted to see her classmates again. It’s her first day in school, even though primary schools in Timișoara reopened five days ago. Her mother chose to keep her home, for fear she’d get sick and contaminate her two younger brothers aged two and five, respectively. The siblings have health problems and are about to undergo some surgical procedures.


Ioana has her own sensitivities – she’s had lung issues. Today, she came to school to attend the first in-person activity of the four final months of the “Nesting a brighter future for children” program, run by the United Way Romania Foundation in twelve community centers. The program aims to lower the school dropout rate among children from underprivileged families, through integrated interventions targeting the relations between the school, the community, and the children’s families.

Each center employs two experts: a social worker and a teacher that organize informal educational activities with the children and parenting education classes with the parents. The children enrolled in the program are selected on the basis of several criteria, which take into account their family situation (income, educational level, the parents’ absence etc.). There are also children in foster families and children with special learning needs.

There are 50 children enrolled at the Timișoara School no. 20 center. Before the pandemic, the activities were carried out in two large groups: one with children in grades one through four and another with children in grades five through eight. Now there are several smaller groups and the activities for those in higher grades continue to be held online only.

School no. 20 is in the Ciarda Roșie neighborhood, located right by the industrial area on Buziașului Avenue, in south-eastern Timișoara. Many of the neighborhood’s inhabitants were drawn here by the available jobs and are living in former buildings for non-family members or renting out houses in the area. Ioana’s seven family members are renting a house with two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen, Ioana has four brothers, aged two, five, 14, and 20, respectively. Their parents are divorced, but they live together. They both work: the mother in a gas-meter factory and the father as a CNC programmer.

The families of the children enrolled in the program also receive material help – food, meal tickets, tablets, and presents for the children. For Christmas, Ioana got the rollerblades she’d been wanting for a long time, but which her mother couldn’t buy for her. She was so happy that she took them out for the spin, even though the weather wasn’t appropriate for this.

Ioana walks ten minutes to school. She enjoys school because she’s got classmates she plays with. She likes history, she likes to read, to answer questions in texts. She doesn’t like square parenthesis exercises, but she can handle the ones with round brackets. She likes to sing, but only when she’s alone, because she gets bashful if there’s anyone else around.

She got to school early and walked into her Romanian language class, then, during the break, she played with her classmates, then, alongside six of them – also enrolled in the program -, she went to the school library, where the community center is active. This is her fourth year in the project and she finds it fun, because she gets to do a lot of activities. Her favorites are those that involve drawing or painting, just like the one today, which is taking place under the guidance of Maria Cabac, a fresh graduate of the Social Assistance Department with the Sociology and Psychology Faculty, employed by the Society for Children and Parents (SCOP), United Way’s partner in the project. 

This is Maria’s first job and it was hard for her, too, at first, also because it started in March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic – but she’s adapted. She now moves from one child to the next and, where need be, helps them glue, cut out, decorate, or offers a piece of advice. She also sits next to Ioana and helps her complete the tree the child would go on to call Baba and show her mother and younger brother with pride and delight upon returning home.

*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.