Every year, a number of schools go out to Romania to visit our project to help change the lives of those living in poverty through our UK Schools Programme. The children from the schools will take part in building challenges to give a family or community some hope for the future. We work with 6 schools including, Prior Park, St Laurence, Kingdown, Beechen Cliff, Stonar School and Commonweal School to give them a 5 day experience that will change their lives.
Beechen Cliff, Stonar School, Prior Park and St Laurence had the joy of going on these wonderful trips this year as well as four students returning to Romania for a longer placement, who took part in building the Mill at the Micro Farm.
Issy Collins from Stonar School writes about her 5 day experience building a Polytunnel for the Micro Farm in Romania.
It was a 4am start for the team on the morning of Wednesday 19th October, as we set off for the first leg of the journey to Luton Airport. We arrived in Iasi that afternoon, and were greeted by Costel, originally from Uncesti where the micro-farm was based and would be the caretaker of the farm, and Emilia, who acted as our translator. Although learning many words and phrases on the plane as a team, our Romanian was still very minimal and holding a conversation would be almost impossible! We were driven to the town of Vaslui, where we would stay during the project, which was a 40-minute drive from the village. Upon arrival, we were exhausted after having a full day of travelling. Unlike previous trips, we were joined by Beechen Cliff School, who would be staying with us and doing similar work at the farm. They were building a hay barn whilst we built the farm’s polytunnel. We were able to spend the evening getting to know Emilia and their team, before having an early dinner in the motel in preparation for the early start, and the first official day of the project. We set off to the farm the next morning. By this time, we were all very excited to start working! The farm is an on-going protect run by ‘People against Poverty’ and their partner organisation ‘Way of Joy’. Jon Williams led this project, and has led previous projects,
including Stonar’s 2014 Romania Challenge. We had the task of building a 17 metre extension for the polytunnel. The poly tunnel would enable the village to propagate and grow many vegetables. Last year, they had managed to grow 200 litres of tomatoes in the smaller polytunnel alone, so that they could make chutney, puree and juice, as well as using it as a staple food. I asked Costel, ‘How has the farm benefited the local community?’ He said that ‘the people of the village have had opportunities in helping to build it or prepare the foundations for the students, as well as gaining the vast amount of crops that we will be able to harvest once it is complete. The villagers have such good spirit when they work together, which is what I hoped to have achieved with the farm.’ This day was dedicated to building the frame and the basic structure of the poly tunnel, which was tough when we had very little experience in the ‘DIY field’! Diţu, Emilia’s dad, is a Romanian design engineer and he designed the foundations for the polytunnel. We were stunned by his commitment and work ethic; he worked on the polytunnel with the team. But his ability to carry so much wood in one load or time taken to hammer in the nails blew us all away. However, he told me at the end of the project that he was stunned by the pac at which we had built the polytunnel – he had clearly taught us well! At the end of day one, we were utterly exhausted, but we had managed to surprise ourselves by how much progressed we had already made. And, day two was going to be a step closer to making a big difference to the village.
Day two arrived, and it was another bleak and early start. We had a big task of sawing and shaping 48 large planks of wood for the roof in the morning. We all got stuck in very quickly, taking on different tasks – Abbie was crowned ‘Chief Chiseler’ by the end of the day. I remember it being the busiest day for us in terms of building the polytunnel. We had worked up a big appetite by lunchtime, and we were rewarded by a hot meal, cooked by Costel’s wife, who lives next door to the farm. Costel’s mother runs a community centre, and she, and other local women, have received training from PAP. She is the only one in the village to have running water, a washing machine, and a sufficient amount of electricity. I had learnt from Costel that there were 150 families in this village, so having the limited amount of services shocked me. Costel’s wife runs a children’s group every Saturday, as well as a church service every Sunday. She cooks a hot meal for around 30 children, as well as giving them a warm place to spend time together. Costel told me the reasoning behind the community centre, ’It gives them a sense of morality, and this is a place where they are respected and they can have the childhood that every child deserves to have’. We had completed day two of the project, and had completed the roof structure as well as starting to develop the sides. It was another successful day.
Day three was one of our favourites at the farm. We continued to work on the polytunnel in the morning, by working on the front and sides of the framework. It was very difficult, however. Shortly after we had arrived, it was raining heavily, and all equipment and the woodwork had got so wet. This was going to make it a lot harder to work at the pace that we were working at. Conditions were poor, and we had to be careful not to slip over on the mud whilst carrying the heavy timber or when using electrical tools whilst up the ladder – Holly clearly didn’t take this on board, as she stumbled into the polytunnel completely covered in mud soon after! After another delicious
meal cooked by the women at the community centre, we stayed for the afternoon to enjoy the children’s playgroup. Whilst Amy played her ukulele, we sang along whilst doing activities such as face painting, colouring and various games. It was so nice to be able to meet some of the children, as we knew that these would be the people that we would be making a difference to. I’m not sure who enjoyed the afternoon more…the children or us!
After Communism fell in 1989, Romania witnessed many problems. Thousands of people lost their jobs and income and subsequently lost their homes. Most houses in Uncesti have only 2 rooms, and have around 6-7 people living in them at one time. The villagers are unable to build new ones or repair the houses that are inherited from their parents as they simply cannot afford it. The only jobs available are in Vaslui, the town that we were staying in. Here, they could earn as much as £10 a day, but paying for a taxi fare that costs over £15
for a round trip means that they cannot get there. As for the land around the village, the people only receive 30% of any profit that could be made from the land. This is because the people do not have the machinery to harvest the crops and maintain the land themselves, so companies hire the land from them for a minimal fee.
Towards the late afternoon, we were taken around the village by Costel, and Emilia joined us also. We met three different families. We took some toys and sweets for the children and Emilia spoke to the families and told us their stories. The families welcomed us into their homes with open arms; it was such a shame that we were so muddy from the day’s work. We saw just how confined the living space was. The houses didn’t have a proper stove, and some cooked outside with fires. A small lightbulb was their only source of light, and natural light was minimal so that they could insulate the house.Houses were typically made out of corrugated roofs and wattle and daub, as ell as a thin layer of plaster. Furthermore, the families that we saw told us that didn’t have enough firewood to get them through the winter and they were worried for their children. The children in the village attend a school that is 25km away, as the closest school that was originally 8km away closed down recently. In order to get to school on time, the kids have to get up at 5am, and will not return home until 3pm.They will go to school no matter what the
weather. Being able to witness how different and simplistic the lives of these people were was truly eye-opening, nd we were touched by the kindness and affection within the community. Day three was definitely a day to remember.
The weather hadn’t improved since the previous day, and it was still very muddy, wet and cold at the farm. These conditions were not the best to be working in, yet we soon learnt that this was not the worst of it. Romania suffers from an extremely varied climate, with temperatures as low -30 degrees in the winter and a scorching 40 degrees in the summer months. These conditions are not ideal for growing crops either, so as well as the remote location of the village and the poverty it faces, the climate also impacts the community greatly. Isolation from storms, floods or high levels of snow is not uncommon here. By lunchtime, we had almost completed the polytunnel, so some of the team had started to help with finishing other projects like constructing the doors for the mill, helping with the barn that Beechen Cliff were building or adding the last details to one of the storage houses. We had definitely started to feel a great sense of achievement as we knew that we were finally starting to make that difference to Uncesti. Over lunch, I asked Costel why he wanted to make a difference to the village, and he responded:’ I want to make a difference to this village because this is the place where I grew up. I spent my childhood playing outside with the boys who are the men of the village today and who now have their own families. I love them’. We were then lucky enough to attend the Sunday church service that was held in the community centre. It was heartwarming to see that the community had so much faith and believed in so much, even when living in those conditions. They took pride in their appearance also, and all of them had arrived in their ‘Sunday best’. We listened to some of their traditional hymns and we also sang some of our own hymns that we sing in assembly back at school. It was definitely a highlight of the trip, as there was so happiness in the room and we could forget about the reality that this village faced for a short while. That evening was our last in Vaslui. We were able to reflect on our time in Romania so far, sharing the best moments and getting to know each other more. I was lucky enough to sit next to Emilia. Emilia was seventeen like most of us, and had many aspirations. She told me that she hopes to study cultures at university, and come to England very soon. Her English was impeccable; she very much enjoyed listening to what stories we had to tell about our lives back home. I can honestly say that I was totally inspired by her work ethic and interest in so much about the world and even at such young age, she is willing to make a difference to the lives of the people in her country. The contrast in her life to ours took me quite by surprise.
Day five was our last official day of the project. We were now adding the final details to the polytunnel including attaching the plastic wrap whilst Abbie and Mrs Bennett worked hard at making the door for the front of it and
Georgia, Liv and Miss Gates completed the doors to the barn. This was perhaps the hardest part of the project; we
were exhausted. It was bleak, it was cold and everyone was all set for it to be finished, so it was sometimes difficult to remain focused. Our motivation is what kept us going. After our final lunch at the community centre, we were taken around and outside the village in the Land Rover. We could really explore how rural this place was, and this only opened our eyes more – this was reality for these people. It was getting dark very quickly, but we did indeed finish the job! There was an immense feeling within the team, as we had just about managed to complete the project, as well as working on other ones on the farm too. We could enjoy a relaxing drive to the city of Iasi, which is where we stayed for the following two nights. After a well-earned meal at the mall, many of us found ourselves going back to the hotel earlier than we imagined! However, it was nice to be able to experience life in a more affluent, modern, urban area of the country after spending almost a week in rural Romania.
Our last few days in Romania were fairly busy. We visited Dallas, a shanty town on the outskirts of Iasi. We were ble to meet families that had received help from People Against Poverty and previous Stonar teams, and families that are scheduled to receive it in the near future. This was serious poverty, and nothing like we had seen before. The families that we met told us how grateful they were to have received or soon be receiving so much help from the charity, and for our efforts in fundraising back home. It was amazing to see how life changing the work that we do really is. After enjoying an afternoon in Iasi, we went to the mall for a meal and bowling later in the evening. It was so nice to be able to relax after a successful yet tiring start to the trip – however Mrs Bennett winning the ame allowed some competitiveness to emerge, and tensions were high! We spent the rest of our trip travelling to Sighisoara, ocated in Transylvania. We also had the chance to visit possible future projects in the
Romani village of Reghin, where we also enjoyed a morning at their Kindergarten joined in with some traditional Romanian and Hungarian songs. After teaching them some of our own songs, we were able to give them gifts such as toy, sweets, hats and scarves. There was so much joy and happiness in the room, and it was definitely an amazing way to end such an amazing experience. We all agreed that this trip was the trip of a lifetime; it was life-changing.
‘I remember looking around the farm every once in a while. I could see the excitement within the team, and the drenalin running high. We all knew the difference we were about to make to this village. Seeing how little they have, we so badly wanted to help them. It was physically and emotionally challenging because we really had no clue how involved we would become with the community.’ Being back now, I realise how much we really do have. e complain every day about little things, yet these people who have nothing, never complain. These little things trigger the memories and remind me to take a step back and appreciate how lucky we really are. Every girl worked extremely hard, and I can speak on behalf of the whole team when I say that this amazing experience has allowed us to develop personally, in different ways. I hope you have enjoyed reading about the team’s experiences in Romania this October, and that you too have perhaps been inspired by our journey.
To find out more about our UK Schools Programme click here.