By Dana Tudose-Tianu
Claire Bignal Melinte has been helping children and disabled adults in Nicoresti for 14 years.
Claire Melinte, the President of Asociatia Bunul Samaritean, was born in the UK and stepped foot in Nicoresti, Galati County, for the first time, in 2005.
Married to Romanian Ionel Melinte for a decade now, they have six children: two biological and four adopted.
We are used to thinking of expats living in Romania in the context of building businesses or working for multinationals in C-suite positions.
It’s hard to imagine the story of a foreigner who falls in love with Romania, moves to an underprivileged, remote rural area, like Nicoresti, and completely dedicates her life, day after day, to working and helping disabled adults and poor children.
Claire spoke with OZB and we hope her story will inspire others, foreigners and Romanians, to contribute to or at least find out more about the lives of young people living in the rural areas of Romania whose only chance out of poverty is through education.
Before the interview, I received a presentation about what drives the work of Asociatia Bunul Samaritean. In it, the demographic, social and economic problems of Nicoresti have been succinctly captured.
“Nicoresti is a poor area. There are still homes without electricity and horse and carts are common means of transportation. Unemployment is very high and common problems include alcoholism, domestic violence, teenage pregnancies and delinquent behavior. The children in the village face several problems. Many parents move abroad looking for jobs, often leaving their children with elderly grandparents. Many parents are illiterate so are unable to help their children with their homework. There are families with 7,8 or even 13 children and the elder children are kept home from school to help with the little ones, or to go to work in the fields. Schools in rural areas also face real problems with funding, equipment and attracting qualified teachers.”
OZB: When did you first come to Romania and what were you doing before you became a part of the Asociatia Bunul Samaritean?
CM: I first came to Romania in 2005, originally for a 6-week volunteering stint, for another charity in our village called Tanner Romania Mission. I loved my time there, I really loved the village, and I came back the next year, this time for a six-month stint, and I met the founder of Asociatia Bunul Samaritean, who asked me if I would volunteer for him. I said I would come to Asociatia Bunul Samaritean for a year – that was in 2007, and 12 years later I am still there and my life has changed completely.
OZB: What circumstances in your life led to the path you took, of working with disabled and deprived children?
CM: I remember, after the Romanian revolution, being very affected by all the stories I heard about all the abandoned, neglected and abused children in orphanages, in Romania. I really wanted to come here then, but I was only 13, and, obviously, I couldn’t. Eventually, I grew up and finished University, I got a job, but I never stopped thinking about those children. One day, I wanted to know what happened to them, so I googled it. And now, here I am, looking after some of these special-needs adults, who were the abandoned and abused children of those times.
OZB: What are the most important projects that you run now, with the organization, and who are your main partners? Who helps you provide resources for the children and adults?
CM: Our most important project is our care home for adults with severe disabilities – Casa Bridget. It was founded in 2003 and it has an annual budget of 150,000 Euro. We have 13 full-time and 1 part-time staff working at Casa Bridget. Most of the residents, we’ve saved from orphanages. They are the reason we started, and they are what motivates us to keep going every day. The second one is our Day Center, which we set up in 2007, to break the poverty trap that so many children are stuck in, especially in rural Romania. We had 300 children come through our doors. Three hundred children that, because of us, had food, had showers, help with their homework, somewhere safe to play. We teach them all different skills that maybe they wouldn’t learn at home.
Our third most important project is our battle to fight school abandonment. Two out of three children in rural Romania abandon school. Two out of three – that’s a huge amount, and it’s mostly down to poverty. We try to change that in our community. We offer teenagers financial support with their transport, uniforms and books. These teenagers come and volunteer with us in return and they love to help around. We also give them monthly counselling. We also run parenting courses in the village, to help parents understand the difference education can make in the lives of their children.
We get most of our financial support from abroad – from Ireland, Italy, England, America. Here in Romania, we are slowly building up support from local businesses, but, being in a rural area, it’s hard, because there’s not a lot of big businesses around.
OZB: Can you describe to me how a regular week looks like for you?
CM: It’s really hard to describe a “typical” week. No two days are the same. My husband and I run the charity together and we also live on the site, with our children. Unfortunately, I spend much more time than I’d like to, on admin work. Most days I’m at the computer, but I like to break it up by spending time with the residents and the Day Center children.
But I’ll give you an example of what I did last week. It was the last week of the school vacation. We organized a clean-up in our local park and went with our day center kids, some of the residents and some volunteers, we fixed the picnic tables and chairs, we painted all the playground equipment, we picked litter. That was a really nice morning, seeing everyone come together for the community. We also took the children to a local adventure park which offered us free passes for the children. It was nice to see them forgetting about all the problems they are facing in their lives, for a few hours. We also visited a family in the village that we are doing some house repairs for. This family is 25 km away from the closest local town. Their house is falling down. The father is elderly and the mother is unable to find work close to home. They have five children.
OZB: What are the main issues you’re facing right now with your organization? What kind of resources do you wish you had?
CM: The main thing we need is always money. We have huge expenses every month and it’s a constant battle to raise as much as we need. We are still trying to find sponsors for all the teenagers who need sponsoring to go to school. Any firm can sponsor us for free, by directing 20% of their taxes to us. Another problem we have is finding qualified and educated staff. Being from a rural area, most youngsters who do get an education end up leaving, and people from the nearest big city don’t want to travel two hours to our location to come to work.