The Homework Project' changes lives for Roma children

The Homework Project' changes lives for Roma children

December 21, 2009
Written by Gregg Brekke
Mariana (at right) leads the tutoring program assisted by her daughter in the village of Cefa. Photo Laura Brix.

The Homework Project, a mission of Epiphany UCC in Chicago, is changing the plight of Roma (or Gypsy) children in Romania - one village at a time.

In only five years, the congregation has succeeded in setting up two learning centers that provide after-school tutoring to the children, in an attempt to make up for the discrimination against Roma children in society and in the public school system. By taking several trips and getting to know the Roma population by establishing a relationship with the program's on-site coordinator in Romania, Alex Stroie, The Homework Project has become less about writing out a check and more about witnessing the positive change in a country still reeling from the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989.

Joseph Burt, music director at Epiphany and founder of The Homework Project, has focused efforts on two villages: Cefa and Berechiu. Because Roma families typically live in the margins of society in extreme poverty, their parents plagued by alcoholism and illiteracy, the dropout rate for Roma children is exceedingly high.

Many Roma households have dirt floors, leaky roofs and no running water. The project helps children with tutoring and provides a supportive environment for their studies. The dropout rate has already decreased dramatically in these villages as a result of the project. The students also receive a nutritious hot meal and coats, hats and scarves to help them face the cold winters of Romania.

A few years ago, a new superintendent for a local school district addressed his teachers at a faculty meeting and expressed his plan to shut down The Homework Project. "How dare these Americans, wanting to teach our kids," he told them.

But a teacher unrelated to the Project stood up to protest. "But sir," she said. "These are my best students now. They are prepared and have better attendance than other students." Burt, who still doesn't know the teacher who spoke out, says that incident gives him the faith to continue. "We could have no better testimonial as to the impact of the program," he smiles.

Burt plans on flying to Romania in March to visit for two weeks. While there, he will investigate possible new sites and more on-site coordinators for additional Homework sites. He hopes to be accompanied on that trip by new partners from other churches who are ready to sponsor a village of their own. "We will help them in every way possible," says Burt, who is eager to share his resources for logistics and fundraising ideas.

Global Ministries, the joint overseas mission organization of the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is active in Romania as well. Mission partners Coralyn and Laslo Medyesy say that discrimination against the Roma population is rising. They cite a decline in birth rates among native Romanians and an increase among Roma as a reason for the tensions.

"Whenever a minority population in a school, institution, town or area becomes 10 percent of the population, the majority population goes through very difficult adjustments," says Coralyn Medyesy of the sociological phenomenon of changing populations. "This results in increased discriminatory behaviors, hate crimes, general unrest and lack of cohesion. Some of what we are seeing in Gypsy-laden areas - as in Muslim-laden areas of Europe or Hispanic-laden areas of the United States, is this sociologic phenomena."

The Laslos cite many programs in Romania and around the world that work with Roma populations, especially children who have been displaced due to family and community economic stresses. While cautioning against the generalities and stereotypes of working with Roma peoples, they commend the work of Epiphany UCC and "encourage the Chicago church who is doing, rather than just talking about" the need.

The cost for sponsoring a village's Homework Project for one year requires a budget of $4,500 - $5,000 yearly. "I will lead as many trips over as long as people want to go," he says. "Part of the magic is seeing what's going on over there."

Fellow Epiphany UCC church member Keith Schwartz took his first trip to Romania in 2005, accompanying Burt to Cefa and Berechiu. Flying into Budapest, Hungary, Schwartz remembers seeing Romania for the first time as they drove four hours to the city of Oradea. "You arrive, and you see typical Eastern European communist architecture," he says. But since Romania joined the European Union (EU) on Jan. 1, 2007, Schwartz notices progress in his subsequent visits. "It has modern conveniences, too," he says. "People have cell phones now."

The peasant villages of Cefa and Berechiu are located 25 miles from the city of Oradea. "People are farming with horses," says Schwartz, "and some of the places don't have running water. Many homes are just heated by a wood fireplace." When Schwartz arrived in the village, he began taking pictures of the living conditions of the Roma families.

Schwartz was so taken with the poverty of the villagers that his appeals have succeeded in amassing $25,000 from private donors. Through the on-site coordinator of The Homework Project, an arrangement to acquire land has been secured with the mayor of Cefa. "The village was willing to lease the land on the edge of the village to us for 99 years," explains Schwartz. "Even though we don't own the land, we can certainly use it and build on it."

Armed with drawings of duplexes to house 24 Roma families, Schwartz and the Romanian on-site coordinators have set up a foundation called Villages of Hope. The next step is finding partners to help sponsor the building of these homes. Schwartz has already been in contact with Habitat for Humanity who has a history of building simple homes in Romania.

Schwartz, who says Epiphany UCC actively supports local mission, feels proud to take an important role in a global mission, too. Having traveled three times to Romania with fellow church members, he is repeatedly amazed at the eye-opening experience of seeing a country with such a starkly contrasting economic situation.

"Romania is in Europe, but there's no running water in some of these villages, and they're not expecting to get it for another 10 to 20 years," he says. "And it is exciting that in Romania, we can hire a teacher for the Homework Project for a yearly salary of $2,400 to tutor 25 students. I mean," Schwartz says, "that's what some people pay for cable in this country."

Founder Joseph Burt has many dreams for the work in Romania, including starting a summer camp in the mountains for the Roma children. Burt believes getting them out of their village environment for a short time could be life-changing, because their current environment "teaches them not to expect anything."

"If we can do this in 10 villages, then eventually we can do it in 30, then eventually in 200 villages," says Burt. "Then, eventually all over the country. We just have to do it in one village at a time."

More information on The Homework Project can be found at <>. 

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