“I have the right to go to school, in order to learn how planes, birds, petals, and seeds fly.”

“It is my right to be taken care of.”

“I have the right to be helped by parents and friends.”

“I have the right not to suffer any form of violence.”

The kids at the Community Center are reading the children’s rights. Mona Vlai, the program coordinator, explains each of them in turn, at their level. Why they have the right to refuse to go to work, instead of attending school. How their families have the duty to protect them. She listens to them patiently and encouragingly, then tries to elicit their definition of responsibility. “To take on a few tasks,” says one little girl, and this opens and enthusiastic talk among the children about their daily lives.

“I make the bed in the morning.”

“I give the chickens water.”

“I go to the store.”

“I brush my teeth.”

Mona guides them with humor, the mood is light. After reading the rights, she introduces the next special activity: drawing on t-shirts. The children’s eyes widen and some perch up from their desks to get a quicker look at what the lady is taking out of her bag. Each of them receives a t-shirt with the slogan “Live united” and fabric pens.

Among them, Miruna seems oddly peaceful. A soft smile almost never leaves her face, except for the moments when she appears to be daydreaming, immersed into another world. Around her, the kids reach out, fussing to get the t-shirts, walking around the room. She stays in her seat until Mona hands her the white t-shirt. She immediately starts to draw a little heart. Then another, bigger one. A flower. Balloons. The drawings are small and simple, but each heart, each petal, and each balloon is a different color. I wonder what the world seen through her eyes actually looks like.

This is the children’s first get-together after a long stretch of time during which the Covid-19 infection rate in the commune was over 8 cases per 1,000 inhabitants. With their freshly personalized t-shirts on and starry paper hats on their heads, the children sit at the tables in the small park nearby. Pizza is ordered. Miruna is doing acrobatics in the grass, and the courage and precision of her movements contrasts with her shy demeanor. She barely interacts with her classmates, but always smiles at them, and follows them in their games with curiosity.

Miruna is in the fourth grade and is one of the 80 children in Mașloc commune, Timiș county, who benefit from the “Nesting a brighter future for children” program, implemented by the United Way Foundation and funded by the Globalworth Foundation. Its main objective is to prevent school dropouts through informal educational activities, which involve the children, as well as parental education, and teacher training programs.

“We try to make the activities as interesting as possible, so that they learn for the sake of learning. What’s more, the older children, who do well in school, are also brought in as tutors for their schoolmates. This is very useful for those in underprivileged families, because it shows them they can give, too, not just receive. They move from beneficiary status to that of a resource-person,” explains Ada Gabor, the area manager.

“What do you actually do at the center?” I ask one of the children. Ada smiles, anticipating the answer.

“We play!”

They sometimes take trips. At other times, they have a special guest, who talks to them about their job. They’ve visited all sorts of companies. They’ve learned the meaning of fire prevention. Some of the guests talked to them about new sports. Most often, they see each other after school at the community center for creative and interactive projects, which open their world beyond what their family and environment can provide. The children in the program are selected on the basis of social and economic criteria. Miruna comes from a large family. Her house is shared by her mother, father, grandmother, and six children, of whom the oldest daughter is 30-years-old and youngest is a three-year-old boy. All the children require special education and three of them attend activities at the center – in fact, they’re never absent, regardless of the weather outside. Their mother takes part in the parental education sessions, also organized by United Way, where she learns about positive communication, child development, and attachment.

“What are your siblings’ names?”

”George, Maria, Florin, Liliana, Diana, Marcela, Larisa.” Miruna lists them all, while a younger brother is waving a yellow balloon in her face. She smiles and withdraws quietly, naturally, from the timid start of our conversation. She grabs her little brother by the waist and spins him around until they both collapse in the grass, laughing loudly.

Coordinator Mona Vlai has come to visit and she’s brought over a mobile phone. Delighted, the children pull her by the hand toward the pig pen. The children’s mother is sitting on a rock outside the house with the youngest one of the bunch, watching over them. Miruna also hands him a balloon.

“Her favorite thing is drawing,” says Mona as she looks at her. “But she likes to get involved in all the activities. She’s made a lot of progress over the past year, especially in reading; you can tell she’s being encouraged at school and at the center. It matters a lot…”

I ask Miruna if there’s anything in particular she’d like me to write about her story. If she wants me to relay her thoughts. She gives me a long, quiet look, with a shy smile. Then, with playful firmness, she tells me she wants me to take a picture of her. With a natural motion, she sits down on a wooden bench – as if she’s always known the timing and the shot – crosses one leg over the other, turns to the right, where she’s holding the pastel colored balloons, and looks at them. I press the shutter. For her, the bunch of balloons, the starry hat, the camera are the props of a sunny day and all that matters, in fact, right here and right now. 

*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.