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.
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.”
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