Leslie Hawke was already middle-aged when she arrived in Romania for the first time. Thirteen years later she is still there, running a nongovernmental organization she cofounded 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 cofounded 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 and 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.
But "it is impossible to separate the work Leslie and Maria do," says Marina Sturdza, a member of the Romanian royal family who sits on the boards of several NGOs. "Both of them have this ability to work with people in all levels of society."
OvidiuRo operates in rural communities where the poorest of the poor are ethnic Roma. "There are these pockets of poverty hidden behind apartment buildings or on the edge of towns," Hawke says. "There is little interaction between these Roma and the rest of Romanian society: Educated Roma don't like to admit their ethnicity for fear of what people will think."
Over the years the NGO has slowly grown and now supports more than 1,300 children in 20 high-risk communities, with plans to expand to 1,700 children soon. "OvidiuRo has become a crucial component of education reform in Romania," Ms. Sturdza says.
The emphasis today is almost entirely on preschool children, an age group Hawke believes is critical. "That is where you can make the most impact for the least investment," she says. OvidiuRo offers food coupons worth about $17 a month as an incentive for parents to send their children to preschool, and it funds other educational aids, vaccinations, and teacher training. It also gets parents actively involved.
The path hasn't been easy.
In the beginning, Hawke watched with alarm when older children they had helped to attend school eventually fell through the cracks, unable to keep up and chaffing at the discipline after living so long outside the system.
"But their younger siblings were doing much better, the ones that had started in the system early," Hawke explains. "Most illiterate parents don't read or talk much to their young children – and they haven't a clue that early formal education is important. That's why we give them an incentive. It gets their attention."
Today, more than 80 percent of the children in the program attend preschool daily, and 73 percent who have come through its program regularly attend primary school.
Romania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has few programs that continue OvidiuRo's work once the children are older. Hawke is prodding the government to extend the parental incentives across the country to all children living in poverty. It is slow work, she concedes, but she is optimistic that eventually the government will take over funding similar initiatives. "Our attendance rates prove that poor Roma parents do care about education," she says. "They just need some support.
"The most agonizing thing is that some of these children are very bright," she says. "Even in places like the Bronx [in New York City], a bright young kid born to drug-addicted parents has a chance of getting spotted. There are programs. But there is no [safety] net for these kids; they can't possibly get out of the cycle."
OvidiuRo's programs cost $600,000 a year. The NGO raises most of that money from within Romania, relying heavily on corporate sponsorships. But it also obtains support from individuals in the United States through The Alex Fund, a US nonprofit Hawke started in 2001.
In June, Hawke persuaded her son, Ethan, to host the Romanian première of his movie "Before Midnight" in Bucharest, with proceeds going to OvidiuRo. The event, attended by Richard Linklater, the movie's director, and Ethan, raised more than $90,000 for the organization.
"Ethan has helped, for sure, but you can only bring someone over so many times," Leslie Hawke says, with a laugh.
OvidiuRo's supporters say they're impressed both by Hawke and the lofty goals of her organization.
"Everywhere you go you have organizations supporting people or communities in need," says Friedrich Niemann, the former general manager of the Athenee Palace Hilton in Bucharest, one of OvidiuRo's earliest corporate sponsors. "But it is Leslie and the passion of the whole team that continues to impress me, and [that] is why I have continued to give money even after leaving Romania."
Last year Hawke remarried. For now her husband is working in the US. "He can't give up his job for at least a few more years, but after that he will join me," Hawke says.
She doesn't plan to leave Romania until at least 2020. "I wouldn't respect myself if I just quit in the middle. In 2020 I will have been here 20 years; that might be a good time to retire," she says with a smile.
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Help in Romania
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.
Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that help those in need worldwide:
• Global Volunteers helps advance peace, racial reconciliation, and international understanding. Project: Volunteer to care for infants or teach English in Romania.
• Miracles In Action provides people living in extreme poverty with opportunities to help themselves through educational, vocational, and other sustainable development projects. Project: Provide a child in need with school supplies.