The teacher picks up a white, plastic, goose egg-shaped object off the table, which emanates a beam of white light, like a flashlight. She looks at the thirteen children in the classroom, and her gaze settles on a blond little girl in the front row. “Miss, you’ve planted thyme, haven’t you? Wanna see thyme seeds under the microscope? Come on!” Ema, the blond little girl, carefully picks up the microscope, as if she were afraid not to break it, points the light to a white sheet of paper on which there are a few thyme seeds and watches the enlarged image on an iPad screen. Behind her, the other children see the same image, projected onto one of the white walls of the classroom.

Ema is eight-years-old, she’s a second grader and, for the past few months, she’s been taking part in the programs of the Pădureni Community Center. The “after,” as the students call it, was founded in 2017 and, up until now, has helped 225 students at the primary school in Pădureni. All of the project beneficiaries come from underprivileged environments, from low-income families. After school hours, the kids at the center move to a small building in the schoolyard, in the designated after-school room, where they get help with their homework and with taking part in informal activities. Through the center’s program, the students have gone on trips, taken part in cultural activities, as well as in volunteer-organized sports competitions.

At home, in the room she shares with her brothers, 11-year-old Mihai and David, who turns one in a month, Ema sits down on the carpet and starts doing her favorite thing – reading. “When I’m home, I like to draw and read more, so I can learn things by heart. Ever since I was little, I liked to read and I still do. I sometimes read in school before the teacher comes in, I still have some time.” She sets the book down next to David, who’s playing with a notebook. She lies face down and starts following the letters with her finger and reading out loud. She recognizes some words faster than others and adapts her pace to this. Where it gets tougher, she goes through the letters whispering, one by one, and as the group starts to make sense toward the end, she gleefully utters the entire word. “She feels how he’s l-e-a-n-i-n, how he’s leaning o-v-e, over.” The reading goes slowly, about a sentence per minute, but she seems to be enjoying it. At some point, her older brother Mihai enters the room.


“What did you have to write for?”

“I didn’t have to write anything today.”

“What about reading?”


“So, do you know it?”
He takes her homework notebook and they peruse it together. “Look, here you made mistakes. You should’ve capitalized this I and this G, too.” He keeps perusing it. “You have an excellent here, two excellents.” Ema goes back to reading, this time slightly faster, with help from Mihai, who steps in when he sees her spelling out the words. “Leave me alone, don’t tell me!”, Ema strikes back.

Mihai is the reason why Ema is attending the after-school. He was the first in the family enrolled in the program at the center. He went for a year. Their mother Luminița says it was useful. “I liked it a lot when Mihai, my son, went to the after, ‘cause when he left school, he’d do his homework there. They helped him with homework, whenever there was something he didn’t know. He no longer spent time at home doing homework.”

Luminița is fixing lunch for the kids. In one of the two rooms of the home they live in, Mihai and Ema are playing with David, keeping him busy until food is ready. Luminița sets two small plates on the table, fills them with ketchup, and runs into the kitchen. She quickly returns with two large platefuls of French fries. She sets them down onto the table and places a loaf of bread next to them. As Mihai and Ema sit down to eat, she places David in a highchair by the table, puts a few fries before him, blows on them and tears them into small bites on which she blows to cool them down. Luminița is a housewife, she takes care of the kids and the household. Their father works as a plumber in Bucharest. He leaves home at 7 in the morning and comes back at 6 in the evening.

After the meal, Ema goes out into the yard, which she shares with her cousin, and they start to play. Luminița no longer allows Ema to play with any other children ever since the pandemic started. Even though the case count in Giurgiu County was pretty low in October, when I visited them, she’d rather keep her close by, in the yard, to avoid taking any chances. She allows her an occasional brief run to the shop at the end of the street, for candy.

The older Mihai enjoys more freedom. He leaves for football practice. Ema withdraws into their room and starts to play with her younger brother, until Luminița comes in and challenges her to a new round of reading. “Read me this lesson, let me see if you know it.” Ema reads for a few minutes. The dissatisfied Luminița stops her and suggests she should practice some more. With a smile on her face, Ema picks the book off the floor, jumps out of bed and starts all over again.

*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.