In the village of Caramidari, Outstreched Hands has an amazing place called the Hope Center. This area is the most impoverished of the areas OH is working in. The children are often not cared for properly at home. The cycle of poverty and lack of education continues generation to generation.
I was fortunate to spend several of my days helping out here. The Hope Center provides kindergarten classes, a homework club, and weekly children ministry to the local children in addition to many other services for the families. In reality, they do so much more than can be outwardly measured. They instill dreams into hearts. They provide a foundation of encouragement and being believed in to stand tall on. It truly is a center where hope is cultivated.
On my first day in Romania, I was brought to the Hope Center. The kindergarten classes were in session and while I wanted to peek in and check them out, I was afraid of being a distraction. Instead, I was given a tour and learned that the Hope Center is constructed out of 45-foot shipping containers! I spent most of the rest of the day in the kitchen, trying to help where I could but also I admit hiding a bit as I didn’t quite know what to do. Around noon the older kids trickled in as the younger kids were being picked up. Lunch was served – fettuccini noodles with feta cheese. Occasionally, one of the kids would say something or ask me something (I couldn’t tell which). I used my best facial expressions and hand signals to communicate that I didn’t understand. One sweet girl came to the window and said something. I turned to get Amber and she said the girl likely wanted a hug. So I came out of the kitchen and she gave me a huge hug! She was my welcoming angel I think.
As I mentioned, I wasn’t quite sure what I should be doing so I was a bit hesitant to interact with the kids that first day. So I mostly observed, catching glances every now and then and offering smiles, especially to those little boys with long eyelashes. Melt my heart! Bringing out the camera also helps initiate interaction. Some of the kids were a little aggressive and unwilling to except no for an answer, so the camera was put away fairly quickly but the ice was broken. By the end of the day a few of the kids had already grabbed onto pieces of my heart.
The next time I visited the Hope Center, I was far less jet-lagged and ready to dive in. This time I would be sitting in on Carmen’s kindergarten class. The kids were like any other kids, guessing at answers, wanting the teachers approval, and full of so much energy. The lesson was all about autumn fruits. In some ways I felt like I was in the class too… learning Romanian words for fruits. (Grape sounds a lot like strudel, but with a g instead of a d.) I even got to do the craft project and have it hung on the wall with the rest!
Two of the girls were very behind in their 2nd grade class. I was asked to help them practice their letters and basic reading by matching some flash cards – letters to words that started with that letter. Because the words were written on the cards along with pictures I didn’t need to know Romanian. The girls took turns and in the process I learned a few more words. Once the deck was complete, another girl came over and began to quiz me on the words. I would attempt to sound out the word on the card and give my best guess. Then she would say the word right and I would repeat it. I (actually) really enjoyed it. I still remember a couple words too!
On the my last morning at the Hope Center I was asked to help give some of the older girls lice treatment. Sadly I learned that one of the girls was “less favored”. While her mom would praise her sister for her beauty and take time to do her hair, this girl was ignored. Lice and fleas are common issues with these kids. We began lathering up the first two girls, and surprisingly the other two girls wanted to make sure they wouldn’t miss out on the fun. I suppose to them it was like going to a salon.
Flori is absolutely adorable. She was one of the ones that wanted to do her homework on the day of no homework. She had a card with words printed on it (words like ma and mama), which she was to write in cursive. I sat with her to help if needed. She would first sound out the word and then as she spoke the word she would look up with those beautiful eyes for approval. When I nodded, she grinned. Then she would write it out. About halfway through she wrote a lower case M instead of an uppercase one. I tried pointing it out to her. Showing her the uppercase on the card and then the lowercase on her paper. She just kept telling me the name of the letter. So I asked Vali to explain to her that it needed to be an uppercase M. She still thought I just wanted the name of the letter. Finally, she looked up at me and back at the paper and said, “Oh!” Then proceeded to write a cursive uppercase A. Oops! She quickly corrected it to an M.
Georgetta was the bossy type who didn’t like no for an answer and quite independent. She was still a young girl wanting attention. I was more than glad to give her some, just not my camera to run around with. Georgetta’s greatest fascination with me had to do with the fillings in my teeth. These kids likely don’t even know how to brush their teeth. For two days she constantly asked me to open my mouth and gaze in with wonder and laughter, wanting to point it out to anyone else nearby. Finally, I asked Carmen to explain it to them. The response was a unified, “Oooh.”
The Hope Center was recently provided with an Xbox Kinect. On Wednesday afternoon all the kids were seated along the wall for a rousing game of bowling. The kids were all supportive of each other, cheering when their friends did well and sympathizing when they didn’t. It came to Carmen’s turn. The kids started to chant her name. From then on the cheer of name chants continued. I don’t care how old someone is, the sound of people genuinely rooting for you feels good. And even in a meaningless game of xbox bowling inspires you to try a little harder. I think I had my two best consecutive frames of bowling ever (you might think I’m exaggerating, but I once lost to a blind person).
I was glad to spend my last day in Romania at the Hope Center, to gather some last hugs and photos from my favorites. It was time to leave and some of my girls were still finishing up homework. I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye, so I poked my head in the door. Vali told the girls I was heading back to the States. They all jumped up and bear hugged me, saying goodbye and they loved me, too.
Realistically, I will likely become just another face passing through to them. To me, they are treasured children. Children I hold in my heart, little reminders of God’s love for all of us.