1. Mrs. Hawke, we’ve first met eight years ago, when you had just moved to Bucharest and started working with children and their mothers. How has your mission evolved in the meantime? Did it get easier?

Eleven years ago, when Maria Gheorghiu and I started an education program for child beggars in Bacau, we worked with kids of all ages. When we added the Bucharest programs in 2004, we also worked with all ages, including the creation of a Second Chance program at School 141 in Sector 5. But we discovered over time that the older kids usually didn’t stay in school more than a year or two. However, across the board, the results for their younger siblings was much better. Those children did stay in school. It was obvious that poor children who are not exposed to early learning situations are permanently handicapped and they never catch up intellectually to the other children who spend their first years in more intellectually stimulating environments. This led to our creation of Fiecare Copil in Gradinita.

2. What is the level of involvement of the Romanian authorities in your program? Do you get any help from them? Do you need it?

Fiecare Copil in Gradinita is implemented BY the local authorities, not by OvidiuRo. We work with the mayor and school director and a local action group to start the program in each community. Then we train the teachers and give them money to buy classroom materials of their own choosing. We also provide food coupons to parents who send their children to gradinita every day. But the principals, the teachers, the social workers and the mediators do the work. And none of them gets paid extra for this! So I would say involvement at the local level is extraordinary. The programs were praised by Minister of Education Daniel Funeriu. They have also been commended by other national leaders. The next important step is to translate their praise into an action plan for the whole country. And for early education in general to become a national priority.

3. Has the crisis affected the welfare of the Romanian children? Is there an increase in the number of children in difficulty?

The economic downturn affected everyone, but unemployment was already extremely high among the rural poor. Our clients have an average of a 6th grade education. Before the crisis, all they could hope for was occasional day labor. After the crisis it’s the same, only some of the demand for day labor has decreased. When I hear that poor Roma parents don’t “want” to work I get

4. Why are there so many unhappy and uncared children?

Being born into poverty brings with it a multitude of problems – health, social, educational. Not having enough money for the very necessities of life is a depressing, miserable way for adults to live and a poisonous environment for children. Most of the adults where we work are functionally illiterate. That is not their fault. That is the fault of a system that basically ignores them. They also don’t have easy access to clean water or sanitation facilities. Also, lack of access to family planning is a HUGE obstacle to addressing poverty in this country. Everybody’s knee-jerk reaction is that “they want to have all those kids”, “they don’t want to use birth control”. NOT TRUE! It is much easier for poor women to obtain abortions than to access reliable birth control. But no woman should be put in the position of having to decide whether to abort a child every few months as her only available method of birth control. To my knowledge there are NO NGOs actively engaged in this issue in Romania.

In order to address a problem of this magnitude and complexity, a country must have a strategy and an action plan for dealing with it. Romania has lots of strategy statements but no specific, measurable action plans. And every time there is a new government, they start all over again.

5. How are we, as a society, supposed to change, in order to put an end to the plight of the little ones? How can every one of us help?

The short answer is – get involved. Find out why the children around the corner aren’t in kindergarten and talk to their mother. When she says they don’t have shoes, buy them some shoes, when she says the local kindergarten said it was full, go with her to talk to the principal and if that doesn’t work, write the local School Inspector and complain, and copy the mayor and the Minister of Education. If you don’t think you have the time or the skills to do that, then set up a Debit Direct account at your bank and contribute 50 lei a month to the work we are doing!

How many street cleaners can Romania use? It’s a vicious cycle. Most of them had minimal schooling so they could never get a decent paying job. And if they don’t have a job, of course they’ll stay dirt poor!

Given that the birth rate of the poor is about 3 times as high as for the rest of the population, naturally, there are more children in extreme poverty now than there were in 2008 – and if nothing is proactively done to make it easier for poor women to access birth control, there will be more – and a higher percentage of – impoverished children in 2016 – regardless of whether the general economy improves.

6. Is there something shocking for you in what Romanian children are concerned? What about their families? Why aren’t they sending the children to kindergarten and school? Is it just poverty or something more?

Gradinita is not compulsory in Romania. Most poor parents don’t even realize that their children should go to gradinita. Our program Fiecare Copil in Gradinita helps local authorities make an action plan and then recruit these kids by going door to door and inviting the parents to send their 3-5 year old children to gradinita. And to motivate the parents to send them every day (which is a radical change of habit for them) we give them 50 lei in food coupons if they bring their child to kindergarten every day. And it works! Most of these parents are proud that their children are there. Some of them have told me that their little boy or girl “is the first person in our family to ever go to gradinita.”1. The lives of hundreds of children are forever being altered because of OvidiuRo. How is the social fabric of this country being affected by this?

What we do is a minuscule part of what we hope the government will be doing by 2020. Our goal is to get the public authorities to implement Fiecare Copil in Gradinita with public money. Two counties have already shown interest in piloting the program with County Council funds beginning 2013.

7. The lives of hundreds of children are forever being altered because of OvidiuRo. How is the social fabric of this country being affected by this?

What we do is a minuscule part of what we hope the government will be doing by 2020. Our goal is to get the public authorities to implement Fiecare Copil in Gradinita with public money. Two counties have already shown interest in piloting the program with County Council funds beginning 2013.

8. I understand that you have dropped the “m” from your organization’s name. It is now Ovidiu Ro. Why?

When we started the organization, we liked the fact that Rom was related to both Romania and Roma. But today, the term “Rom” has become exclusively associated with “Roma” – and we are not a “Roma organization” per se. We are a Romanian organization dedicated to raising the educational attainment of Romania’s poorest children – regardless of their ethnic heritage.

9. How is being the mother of a film star helping you in your mission? Is it easier or not to get somebody to listen to your project and help you?

In the beginning it made it easier to open doors. It definitely helped us launch the first Halloween Ball, but I don’t think there is much residual benefit anymore. I’m guessing that it DID have something to do with why you interviewed me the first time back in 2004, but probably not anything to do with why you are interviewing me now. Am I right?

10. After all these years in Romania, what was your greatest success? And regret? What is your next project?

My greatest satisfaction is knowing that 1400 children are currently going to gradinita almost every day thanks to OvidiuRo. They certainly wouldn’t be going as often if it weren’t for us, and many wouldn’t be in preschool at all. They would wind up in first grade at 7 or 8 and be clueless compared to their peers who had had 2 or 3 years of gradinita. My biggest disappointment is the generally low quality of teaching in this country. I would like to see video cameras in all classrooms, and a channel that randomly showed them on national TV 24 hours a day. That would change things in a hurry. I don’t have a next project. I hope to see Fiecare Copil in Gradinita become available, with public funds, to every community in Romania that wants it. I think by the time that comes to pass I will be ready for retirement, but if it happens sooner than that, I’d like to get involved in recruiting and training young teachers. You can’t make a bad teacher into a good teacher, but with the right incentives you can attract talented young people to the profession, and through training you can make them great.