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FEATURE STORY

Romania: Wheels of Change

April 4, 2006


BRAGADIRU, Romania - Ramona Hudrea, 24, was born without a sense of balance. She has to lean on someone or something all day to avoid falling. George Marafet, 15, known affectionately as Giovanni, lives with a different set of handicaps. He was born a Roma, or gypsy, in a family of 7 with a father in jail, a mother out of work, and no real hope of ever finishing school.

Both used to spend their days doing "not much" and struggle with feelings of worthlessness. Both are now beneficiaries of programs run by an exceptional Romanian non-profit association that strives to teach independence and self-respect.

Motivation Romania is based in Bragadiru, a town of concrete apartment blocks in the suburbs of the capital city of Bucharest, where the back roads are unpaved and goats chew on trash. Primarily an NGO run by disabled people for disabled people, it recently extended its reach to some of its downtrodden neighbors: young delinquents living as social outcasts.

This generosity was awarded a $20,000 grant by the Romanian Social Development Fund, an institution partially financed through a World Bank loan to the Romanian government, that supports community-driven development.

Grassroots solidarity

Motivation Romania has always been good at garnering money and goodwill to fund its vision of grassroots solidarity. When the NGO moved to its present location, the staff immediately rolled up their sleeves. With money from local and international donors (including the Social Development Fund), Motivation Romania, transformed a window-less cultural center, abandoned since the fall communism, into a busy, wheelchair-accessible, three-story rehabilitation center.

The achievements are impressive.

A huge amphitheater, entirely refurbished, lets wheelchair athletes bounce basketballs in the winter. A workshop which churns out 20 steel-tube wheelchairs a month offers disabled people a chance to master a craft and help other disabled people across the country. So far Motivation Romania has given about 1,400 of its well-designed wheelchairs. Other rooms boast computers and sewing machines, fitness and medical equipment, all adapted for people without full use of their limbs.

But more than the gear, it's the method that makes this center special.

The idea behind Motivation Romania is that peer group training works best - much better than top-down advice dispensed by hospital staff. Here, disabled people receive physical, mental and social therapy from people who have suffered similar ordeals. Hudrea says she has been shaken out of her loneliness and isolation during her stay at the center. She's taken up sewing and made friends. "Most of all, I'm learning to trust myself," she says.

"They'd rather listen to me than to someone standing on two legs," explains Filip Gheorghe, 34, who fell off a bicycle twelve years ago and now leads the wheelchair workshop and other activities at the center. "You can dance in this," he demonstrates from his seat. You can fold it up to drive. And in the right kind of chair, you can even play tennis.

This is where Giovanni comes in. A lanky teenager with an easy smile, Giovanni is busy running after wayward balls for a couple of disabled but muscular tennis players. He doesn't play himself: "I just help." Nearby, the roles are reversed: Mariam Elisei, wheelchair-bound since 1991, monitors a soccer game between neighborhood kids. "I stop them from fighting," he jokes. Most of the children are members of the Roma minority, which accounts for 12% of Romania's population. Many are school drop-outs and would be sitting in jail if Motivation Romania had not engaged a dialogue with them two years back.

Defying low expectations

"Together for Reintegration" was the gift of one disadvantaged group to another.

Twenty boys, identified by the local authorities as potential juvenile delinquents, were offered a chance to defy low expectations and come into contact with an organization buzzing with energy. Motivation Romania approached them through the language of sports. With World Bank money, it transformed a dump into a soccer field and created a tennis court where wheelchairs glide and spin. Then the crippled invited the "petty crooks" to play.

"Our neighbors were skeptical and doubted that we could help youth at risk" says Elisei, the improvised referee. "It looks like they were wrong." Ironically, the disabled were better able than most to look beyond social stigma and treat the kids normally. They gave the boys basic social skills and lectures on violence and drugs. They organized a soccer team and went on a summer camp together. The mentoring helped some boys go back to school. Others have not yet managed to overcome the barriers that stand in their way.

Giovanni still hopes to go beyond 5th grade one day. Meanwhile, he's staying out of trouble. He swings by the center daily to take out the trash, fetch bread, tool around in the workshop or pick up balls on sunny days.

"Public schools are not ready to accept them," says Cristian Ispas, Motivation Romania's founder, of the marginalized boys. "It's good for the kids to be in touch with people who ask for their help. They feel useful for society. It's the same incentive for both groups. In the end, it's a question of self-respect."

Initially published in August 2005


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