“Wound! Winter! Gift! Radio! Dana! Cloud! Arad!”, chant seven fourth graders, each one in turn, scattered around the ten desks in a classroom, their cheeks still red after the Physical Ed class. They’re just a few of the 47 students at the Sînandrei Secondary School enrolled in the “Nesting a brighter future for children” run by the United Way Foundation.

The activities at the Sînandrei Center are led by social worker Andreea Valentina Burtea, an employee of the Timar Association, the local partner of United Way. She’s the one who prepared the classroom, she checked to see if the little ones washed their hands and used disinfectant, and she checked their body temperature. She also received and distributed the food: pizza, the kids’ favorite. Then, the games started. First Hangman, then a game in which the kids had to find words with as as many of the letters O, I, D, Ă, A, R, and N as they could.

It’s been only a few days since schools reopened and the kids are happy to see each other again, in good moods, their hands always up in the air. Among them, Maria, who wears a top that says ”I always do whatever I want.” Four years ago, when she joined the program, Maria was very shy and didn’t talk much. Now, she talks, answers, communicates, is friendly, and enjoys reading.

Maria doesn’t like leaving her homework undone, even though she shares a room with six other family members: her parents and four siblings – two girls and two boys. The room is on the first floor of a former railway canton purchased by Maria’s paternal grandfather, a former employee of the national railway company, who also lives there, but in an outbuilding. At a certain point, the family moved to a village in Arad county, with the goal of buying a house there, but they failed to do so and returned.

Maria’s mother would like to save up and expand her house, at least with one bathroom and one room, but admits that this will be difficult, because her husband is a day worker and makes 70-100 lei per day when he gets a job. She doesn’t work, because she has to look after her youngest son, who is five-years-old, and has nowhere to leave her kids if the schools close down again.

Because of the family’s low income, the girls and the older boy were admitted into the United Way educational program. Aside from financial standing, access to the program includes other criteria as well: children whose parents are off to work abroad, children in the care of their grandparents, children in foster homes or from single parent families, children whose parents serve freedom-depriving sentences, and children with special educational needs.

When she has to go to school, Maria wakes up at 6:30. She walks and it takes her 20-30 minutes to get there, because their home is on the edge of the village. She usually has classes until noon, and once a week she stays on for the educational program. Her favorite classes are reading and art, and in the program she enjoys word games. She also likes trips. They can’t go on any right now, because of the pandemic, but the one to the mall on one of the previous years is still a landmark: it was the first time the children played at a specially designed playground.

Even though Sînandrei is only 12 kilometers away from Timișoara, the big city is far away enough that a trip there is inaccessible to those who don’t own a car. For work, companies transport their employees there with their own means. 

Still, three times a week Maria trains in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Students’ Club no. 1 in the city, which is partnered with the Sînandrei sporting club and school. She chose wrestling because several of her classmates attend as well. There are about 15 Sînandrei kids there, including one of Maria’s sisters. That’s how they discovered that their father’s sister also took wrestling, went to training camps, and won a few medals.

The program’s final few minutes are for listening to stories. The room has fallen silent and Andreea’s voice is the only one heard. Maria doesn’t know it yet, but within a few hours’ time, at the end of training, the coach will ask them to take photos for their ID cards: if all goes well, she and her sister will take part in their first competition, which is about to take place a few days later, in Bucharest. Now, Maria is resting her head on the desk, listening to the adventures of Erus in the Valley of Patience.

*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.