My mother, the force of nature

High school is, for all children, a threshold to a new world. But when the family goes through major changes, signing up for ninth grade can test anyone’s determination. A UNICEF program softens the landing.

Roxana Grămadă
UNICEF/ Ioana Munteanu
10 October 2021

When she turns 20, Adina plans to be on her own feet. “Have my job, not live with mom, and see the whole of Romania. First, the sea.” She’d also want a driver’s licence and a house in Răchitiș, the village where she was born.

For her licence, she’ll have to wait to turn 18 first. For the job part, she’s taking care of every day. Adina is in the tenth grade at the Technological High School „Grigore Antipa” in Bacău, studying to become a waitress. One of her elder brothers graduated from here, too. Luminița, her younger sister, has the same wish. In the Popa family, working in the hospitality industry is almost a tradition.

“Everyone turns their head, they thank you if you’re proactive” remembers Adina’s mother Luminița, who had served a few times at parties in guest house. Luminița completed only five grades, and until she got to be the occasional waitress, had only worked odd jobs as a caretaker in the village. She had a goal, though: to keep all her six children in school.

“He [her children’s father] had never worked, and was always on social aid. The boys had gotten old enough for high school. I took care of an invalid for two and a half years and every penny I got, I invested in my children. I could only see myself there stuck, in the village. Many said: why did you have so many children? But if I never went out of the yard? How could I get in contact [with the world], I had no money… How could I get myself up?”

After her father died, Luminița gathered all her strength and, against her husband’s wishes, went to get a job in Bacău. Even with her performance bonus, she still couldn’t cover all debts and expenses. She heard of a strawberry farm in England and in 2018, she separated from her husband, left behind her work of 21 years, and left with only her ID in her pocket.

“It was hard for the girls, too. Two months they stayed home. Then I spoke [at the social services in the mayor’s office] and mom took them in, in the same village. They continued to go to school.” Luminița sent money home every other week and spoke on camera with the girls every night.

The parents’ separation, the mom’s departure and their moving over at grandma’s all happened in a crucial year for Adina, exactly when she was getting ready to go to high school. Such important events in the life of a family can make their mark on the children’s development, and this reflects on the school performance. Especially when they live in the countryside, it takes more motivation, support and resources to get them to carve their way among strangers, where the high school generally is. How did Adina make it?

UNICEF/ Ioana Munteanu
UNICEF/ Ioana Munteanu

How the difficulty becomes easy

In 2018, Adina was going to school in the commune of Strugari and was getting ready, together with her three friends, to take the leap to ninth grade. She had heard of the „Grigore Antipa” high school in Bacău from older students and from her brother, and had decided that’s what she also wanted. The daily commute to school and back was going to take three hours, but with her three friends, the road did not seem hard. At Adina’s school, teachers had been telling them for years how important it was to continue their studies.

The school in Strugari has been, for many years now, a partner with UNICEF in the Quality Inclusive Education program, among which components are supporting students making the transition from secondary school to high school. The courses and trainings in the program, be they for teachers, school managers, or parents, have built around every child a ring to lean on, a support system wherein children whose parents have never gone to high school can take the leap to ninth grade. Adina is one of them.

In total, 1.000 children in the county of Bacău are being helped to continue their studies. Financing is provided by UNICEF’s own resources, with support from The Botnar Foundation and Lidl Romania. Many children, Adina included, receive monthly scholarships.

“Nobody around me ever said <<you made a big mistake by leaving>>. They said <<Good for you, for leaving, you pushed the girls up, you took them to school to Bacău, you can see that from the way they behave, you can tell you take care of them, well done you for exploring>>”.

Several high schools, including The Technological High School „Grigore Antipa”, have mentorship programs, where older students help the newcomers. Eighty seven per cent of the students at Antipa come from rural areas. For many, it is their first time to leave their village.

Adina no longer needs to commute. After a year in England, Luminița came back, got her children from her mother’s and rented an apartment in Bacău together with her new partner. The girls continue to see their father and help him with housework.

“Nobody around me ever said <<you made a big mistake by leaving>>. They said <<Good for you, for leaving, you pushed the girls up, you took them to school to Bacău, you can see that from the way they behave, you can tell you take care of them, well done you for exploring>>. I don't know how proud my girls are of me for my struggle, but I am proud of them,” says Luminița.

All three go to school and have plans for the future. Adina isn’t the only one aiming high. Luminița, her middle sister, wants to be a waitress too, but in France, have her own restaurant, and just like Adina, she’d like a house in Răchitiș. “You can team up with Adina,” their mom encourages them. Maria, the youngest, wants to become a teacher. “I want to get better at everything in school,” she says, a wide smile on her face. “If you want, you can”.