The small hands place the pot on the stovetop and, with a precise gesture, light a match. A few minutes later, when the water is hot, Ștefania pours it into a small plastic bassinet. She takes a baby bottle, opens it, dips the bottle and its cap into the warm water, and starts rubbing them with a cloth. Although she’s not yet eleven years old, Ștefania is used to working. She does the washing up, chops up wood, cleans the house. She’s now preparing the bottle for her youngest sister, Diana, who’s dozing on the bed, softly rocking in the arms of Maria, the older sister.

“They’re four sisters and they raised each other,” recalls primary school teacher Ioana Țonea, a social educator at the Fundulea Community Center. Ștefania and her sisters go to the center every day after school. It’s the only center of its kind in the community, supported by the United Way Romania Foundation. The goal of the project is to increase access to education for children and youngsters from underprivileged families.

The center works like a micro-community, in which people from different generations learn new things together, socialize, and mutually support each other. A group of children enter the room, in two by twos, holding hands. Mrs. Ioana, as the children and their relatives call her, watches over them and makes sure no one is left outside. Aside from the role of social educator at the center, the woman teaches primary grades at the local school. Every day, they travel from the school to the center together.

Ștefania and her other older sister Denisa sit down on a long couch together with the other children. The room goes quiet. Over the medical masks, watchful eyes are staring at the lit-up screen of a projector. Behind them, at the controls, Ioana Țonea is preparing the next lesson on her laptop. A YouTube window emerges on-screen, showing some birds. From the speakers, a woman’s voice starts talking about storks. A lesson on migrating birds follows. The voice in the speaker recites a riddle and there’s a short break in the recording to leave room for an answer.

“The stooooork!”, Ștefania’s voice is heard from underneath the mask, in unison with the other children.

The theoretical presentation only lasts for a few minutes, after which Mrs. Ioana changes pace, to keep her audience engaged. A new window emerges on-screen, and another voice starts narrating Ion Agârbiceanu’s “Story of the Lark.” The children grow enthusiastic and listen on.

The lesson on migrating birds finishes with a drawing activity. Each child makes a sketch of their favorite bird, cuts it out, and hangs it from a small tree standing tall from a large pot in the middle of the room.

“I like reading about the little monkey and the panda bear,” says Ștefania. After lunch, Ștefania takes a big book filled with illustrations and starts reading. It’s one of her favorite things to do. “I like reading because it helps me in life. If someone makes me read or write a contract, I won’t know how. We have to learn how to write, read, sign our names.”

Gabriela, Ștefania’s mother, is 39-years-old. She’s a housewife. She lost her first husband when the girls were little. Her second husband, the father of Diana, the little one, is a day worker.

“For us, the center is a huge helping hand. The children go there, get a warm meal, study. We know they’re safe there. They were like mother and father to me,” Gabriela says.

She’s gotten the girls used to working and taking care of each other ever since they were young. In the backyard, Ștefania and Denisa are chopping firewood with an axe that seems too big for them. The wood is bits of planks which they place directly on the ground and hit them until they break, jumping into directions that are hard to anticipate. When they grow tired, they switch.

After a while, they grow bored and start playing in the yard. Ștefania climbs up a tree, Denisa is digging into a mound of gravel with a spoon. The fun is short lived, Gabriela calls out to them and reminds them evening is coming, and they haven’t prepared dinner yet.

Denisa carries the wood inside, while Ștefania takes out water from a fountain with a bucket. They start peeling potatoes for dinner. Vegetable salad and French fries for the whole family.

“If there are any fries left, we’ll give them to Sașa,” Denisa says enthusiastically, her eyes on a wooly dog next door, stretched out above the fence to get a better view of the source of the smell.

“But are there ever any fries left?”, the mother asks.


*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.