Leslie Hawke: Finding Her Mission Halfway Around the World

A few years back, Leslie Hawke was in a rut. By all outward measures, she had a good life. She had successfully raised her son, Ethan, the movie star and novelist. She had survived two divorces; various intersecting ca­reers as an Internet publisher, textbook editor, and fundraiser; and was living comfortably on New York City’s fashionable Central Park West. Still, Hawke was juggling a dead-end job and a so-­so relationship. „I wasn’t very happy,” she recalls. „So I was looking for something else to do.”But it wasn’t until John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane went down in July 1999 that Hawke emphatically decided to make a change. „I said to myself, ‘If you died tomorrow, wouldn’t you be embarrassed that this is what you were doing with your life?’ JFK Jr.’s death made me think of JFK- and the Peace Corps. So when I got to work that morning, I actu­ally contacted the Peace Corps.” She was told that there were openings in Eastern Europe, „and it was Ethan who said, ‘You know, Mom, Eastern Eu­rope’s actually the most interesting place in the world right now,'” she says.

So Hawke sublet her apartment, and in February of2000 flew to Bucharest, Romania, where she trained for 10 weeks and then, armed with pidgin Romanian and a Romanian-English dictionary, headed to her assigned destination-the city of Bacau (pop. 250,000), four hours north of Bucharest by car. She describes Bacau as „ordinary, sort of like living in Abilene, Texas, where my grandmother is from.”

Shortly after settling in, Hawke found herself beguiled by an 8­ year-old Gypsy beggar named Alex, who worked the same street corner every morning, barefoot. He wheedled her into buying him a broiled chicken one day and later, a pair of sneakers. Through him, she learned about a problem peculiar to Romania. Impover­ished women, chiefly Gypsies, cannot earn a living, in large part because people refuse to hire them. So they send their children into the streets to beg; it is an accepted means of supporting their families.

Hawke decided to tackle the situation. First, she needed to show local officials that begging need not be the only option for the poor, and that social service programs can provide an alternative for both mothers and their children.

So she decided to make New York’s Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing and Able Program ­which teaches the homeless trades, then pro­vides jobs and modest salaries-her model. She arranged to bring 10 Bacau officials to New York to see firsthand the Doe operation and some child welfare programs.

Then, with a grant from the V.S. Agency for International Development, Hawke launched a two-pronged local program to help both mothers and their children.

First, she began recruiting poor, unedu­cated women for jobs. „Mostly it’s clean­ing,” she says. ‘The city of Bacau has hired them to clean streets, and we hire them to clean offices and schools.” For a mother to be in the program, she must place her chil­dren in school-they can’t be on the street begging.

Second, she organized a shelter and re­medial school for the youngsters. Called a stefanita, it accommodates between 40 and 50 children daily. Children can attend the school regardless of whether their mother is in the program. „We’ll take any kids who can’t get into a regular school,” she ex­plains. After one year, she estimates the ed­ucational effort already is reaching 30% of the unschooled children in Bacau between the ages of 5 and 12.Hawke’s success stories include Alex, „now 10 and in the second grade. It’s the first time he has ever been to school. He’s a little hyperactive but doing well,” she reports.

In the mothers’ program, she’s especially pleased with the case of Marcisa, an unmar­ried 24-year-old mother of two who came to her with a ninth-grade education. Marcisa is now a teaching assistant in a project school and supporting her family.

Hawke also established what she calls the American Learning Center School, offer­ing English courses to middle-class Roman­ian children. English, she points out, „is im­portant for everyone in Romania. Even for service jobs like taxi driving and restaurant work, it’s a huge advantage in helping peo­ple move from the periphery of society to its mainstream, which is one of our goals.”

As a way to make learning English more fun, she initiated a four-week summer dra­ma camp for disadvantaged children and high-school students (who performed scenes from Romeo and Juliet). „It was won­derful,” remembers Hawke. „At first, the kids signed up only for a week, but they kept coming back, and we had to hire extra teachers.”

Hawke’s friend, Wendy Phillips, one of two actresses who came over to Bacau from New York to help run the program, says, „Leslie is always astonishing in what she manages to accomplish. She gets an idea and finds ways to make it happen, regard­less of the obstacles.”

„Leslie has a real belief in her mission,” adds Carol Tannenhauser, who works at The Doe Fund in New York City and traveled to Romania to observe Hawke’s projects. „It’s as if she goes into a zone. We followed her into the Gypsy camps, which were filthy, win­dowless hovels. I had the urge to flee, but Leslie marched right in and started recruit­ing. She’s up against tremendous odds, but I love the fact that she’s providing services to both the children and their mothers.”

No one is prouder of Hawke and her work in Romania than her only child. „My mother is an exciting, passionate, and involved hu­man being,” says Ethan. „She’s a great role model for my children and for me.”

At first glance, Bacau may seem a long way from Fort Worth, Texas, where Hawke grew up, the daughter of Howard Green, a lo­cal politician who became a county judge. Yet Hawke, a child of divorce at a time when divorce was a stigma, ob­serves, „I always felt a little out of place there, a little different, which may be why I’m so comfortable in Romania.” Immers­ing herself in the sense of community pro­vided by the local Fort Worth theater school, she took drama courses and worked on productions. Yet at 16 Hawke left her theatrical dreams behind and enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, where she met and married Jim Hawke. When Leslie was 20 and Ethan 18 months old, the family moved to Connecticut, where Jim earned a graduate degree in mathematics at Yale­-he eventually became an actuary- and she received a B.A. in psychology from the Uni­versity of Connecticut in Storrs.Her marriage, however, was short-lived. The pair divorced in 1974, and in 1982 Hawke wed Patrick Powers, a management consultant. Although they broke up 10 years later, she says she owes much of her so­cial commitment to his influence.

Of her work in Romania, Hawke says, „I feel like I was preparing for this for the first half of my adult life.” What’s more, she doesn’t miss the creature comforts of home. During her first year in Bacau, she lived in an impersonal Soviet-bloc apartment building, but now shares a small, comfortable apart­ment behind the American School with a Romanian colleague and her daughter. Hawke, who augments the Peace Corps’ $180-a-month salary with her own savings, says, „I have my work friends in Bacau, and my weekend friends in Bucharest, a truly in­ternational city with gorgeous buildings, restaurants, and a lot going on. There’s a spirit in Romania that’s wonderful. It suits my personality.”

So much so that Hawke intends to stay on indefinitely, even though it means separa­tion from her son and daughter-in-law, Uma Thurman, and their two small children, Maya Ray, 4, and Levon, almost 1. But Ethan visits Hawke at least once a year, and she comes back to the States periodically to fundraise. What’s more, to make sure that Hawke still stays connected to the side ofher that loves pampering, her daughter-in-law has given her wonderful Christmas pre­sents: a knockout red Gucci cocktail dress, which she wears to dress-up events, and cash­mere sweaters and jewelry. „Uma has a gift for gifts,” says Hawke. “The level of presents I have gotten has gone up 100% since she married my son.”

Even so, Hawke doesn’t mind roughing it. In fact, she insists that she has never been happier. „Sure, I miss the theater,” she says, but she has gotten a great deal back in re­turn. „I’ve lost weight walking everywhere. And I’ve been able to use what I’ve learned in the course of my varied work life and as a white, middle-class, fairly well-educated American.”

Above all, the Peace Corps has allowed Hawke to feel useful. „This has been very satisfying,” she muses. „One of my favorite maxims is, ‘Do the good you have the power to do.’ I feel like I’m finally doing that. Granted, it doesn’t amount to much in the scheme of things, but at least I’m on the right track.”

Tax-deductible donations can be sent to The Alex Fund, a 501(c) (3) charity, at 924 West End Avenue, #25, New York, NY 10025.8

BY MARJORIE ROSEN

MARJORIE ROSEN IS A FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO THIS MAGAZINE.

This article is reproduced by the permission of People magazine, in which it was originally published. Copyright 2002

The photographs are reproduced with the kind permission of Robert Wallis. Copyright 2002.