RPCV Leslie Hawke–mother of Ethan Hawke–helps Roma children get an education

Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Alana DeJoseph (Mali 1992–94)

Leslie Hawke (Romania 2002-04) was already middle-aged when she arrived in Romania for the first time as a PCV. Thirteen years later she is still there, running a nongovernmental organization she co-founded and continuing the work that earned her an Outstanding Citizen Award from the United States Agency for International Development in 2005.

A former editor and publishing executive, and mother of actor Ethan Hawke, Ms. Hawke left everything she knew in New York City to join the Peace Corps, trading a Central Park West apartment and leisurely Sunday brunches for life in Romania.

“I joined … to give myself time to think about what I ought to be doing, not really expecting to actually find it in the Peace Corps,” she explains one recent afternoon while sitting in her office in the center of Bucharest, the capital. Around her, many of the young employees of OvidiuRo, the NGO she co-founded in 2004, are busily working. The walls are covered with photographs, most of them showing children from poverty-stricken communities that OvidiuRo serves.

“The communities we are working in are the neediest in Romania, and many organizations don’t want to work there,” says Hawke, whom many consider an elder stateswoman of the nonprofit scene in Romania.

Hawke arrived in 2000 and found a country still emerging from decades of communist rule that ended in a bloody 1989 revolution. Posted to the small city of Bacau, she wrote in her first letter home: “In the beginning we stayed in a vacant high school dormitory that looked like an abandoned orphanage, including iron-barred gates on each floor nd eight narrow beds to a room.”

It was a rude awakening, but Hawke quickly adapted. She became drawn to helping children she saw sitting alone or in pairs on the sidewalk, begging. After Hawke took one of the shoeless children to a support center, his mother berated her: Hawke had deprived the family of his income.

Hawke realized then she had found her calling. “Seeing those kids on streets, begging, was really painful for me,” she says.

“Leslie came in, spotted a need, and was determined to make a difference – and she did,” says Gabriela Achihai, the president of the Community Support Foundation of Bacau.

Hawke began talking with long-skirted women sitting on park benches half a block from where the women’s children or siblings begged. The women told her similar stories: They wanted to work, but they had few skills, and nobody would hire them. It was hard for Roma, an ostracized ethnic group in Romania, to find jobs. (One woman said she’d applied for a job sweeping the streets but had been turned down even for that.) That’s why the children were needed as breadwinners, they said.

Hawke and her colleagues began working with the impoverished mothers to help them develop job skills. At the same time, they started an education program for the children in a vacant public school dormitory.

While the program for the mothers was successful at getting them into the workforce, it was expensive and didn’t “scale up” as readily as the children’s education program, which Hawke says grew almost effortlessly.

In 2004, after finishing her time in the Peace Corps, Hawke stayed on in Romania. Along with her colleague, Maria Gheorghiu, she founded OvidiuRo, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping severely impoverished children succeed in school. Hawke focuses on fundraising and advocacy, while Ms. Gheorghiu runs the on-the-ground operations.

Read more at: https://www.euronews.com/2018/11/12/european-heroes-the-women-fighting-for-early-education-in-romania


One Comment

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  • I’m amazed at this story, having worked with Roma for fifteen years that included an international conference in Gottingen, joining Roma at the UN to obtain observer status with ECOSOC under the aegis of the International Romani Union, and also joining Roma at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC at its opening, and many other things.

    I wonder if George Soros has an Open Society Institute in Romania as he did in Hungary until Orban threw him out. Soros has done a lot for the Roma of Europe.

    Leslie Hawke, you are walking the walk and not only talking the talk. I congratulate you!

    Leita Kaldi Davis
    Senegal 1993-96

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