Leslie HawkeThe 1960’s ended 35 years ago, but don’t tell that to Leslie Hawke, 52. In 2000 this Ft. Worth native left her well paying management position at a high flying tech company to join the Peace Corps at an age when most people who can afford it are contemplating early retirement. Assigned to Bacau - a market city of 200,000 in Northeastern Romania - her 20 years of Gotham City management experience was put to the test on behalf of an NGO developing community social service programs.

Five years later, her Peace Corps enlistment long completed, Bucharest-based Leslie is still in Romania working tirelessly to help the Roma people, better known in this part of the world as Gypsies. In 2005 she was the recipient of USAID’s Outstanding Citizen Award in recognition of her dedication and effectiveness helping this marginalized community help itself.

This past March, Gothamist was fortunate enough to attend a benefit performance of the critically acclaimed HurlyBurly, organized by Leslie to raise money for her programs. Her son Ethan may have been on stage along with a high profile and very talented ensemble cast, but for that night at least Leslie was the star shining brightest.

Good luck, though, getting her to say anything nice about herself. Nevertheless, astute fundraiser and marketer that she is, when we approached Leslie after the show, she was only too glad to accept Gothamist-on-hiatus status in order to talk with us about what was on her mind.

Leslie, you were in your late 40’s when you joined the Peace Corps, an organization strongly associated with young idealistic activists, back in 2000. What were you doing before that and what moved you to make such a life-altering choice?
I worked for a terrific internet start-up company in New York that got sold to a publishing conglomerate at the height of the IT craze. After that change of ownership, it wasn’t so much fun anymore so I started looking around for something else to do.

How did your family, friends and colleagues react to your decision?
I think everyone was a little jealous. It sounded like such an adventure. And it was. The only people who thought it was crazy were Europeans who had a very negative image of Romania.

Tell us about your Peace Corps assignment.
I was sent to Bacau in northeastern Romania, to work for an NGO that had a variety of community social service programs. I was asked to help with fundraising and program development because I had experience in those areas.

Having spent a little time in Haiti and Khartoum in the past, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the only real sacrifices I had to make were a lack of choice in consumer products and adjusting to only having hot water for four hours every other day. That’s inconvenient, but it’s hardly disorienting! For me, the shock was seeing children begging on the streets of an otherwise modern looking city. And people just accepting it as normal.

Did you feel your real world life experience afforded you any kind of “edge” compared to your typically younger peers? How so?
There’s no question but that the older people in our group had a great deal more to offer than the younger ones. And it was easy to see how at age 25, I wouldn’t have had much to offer Romania either! Also, the older volunteers had a better internal barometer for assessing their situations and figuring out what they could best contribute.

“When you’re young you’re idealistic and you want to change the world, but when you’re older you just become realistic and settle for the status quo?” Do you agree or disagree with that statement?
It is certainly true that when you have children to care for and support it changes your priorities dramatically. Self-expression, personal fulfillment and idealistic choices take a back seat to providing for your kids -- to whatever level you deem necessary. I’m lucky in a convoluted way in that I got my child rearing years behind me long before most of my peers. So at 48, I had the luxury of acting on my ideals and values without sacrificing anyone else’s welfare or comfort. Since I have been in Romania, I have never had to choose between doing what fulfills me and meeting my obligations to others. Strangely enough, I almost blew that by getting married again to a man in New York. Fortunately, he broke up with me before I had to deal with the inevitable conflicts of interest!

Why do you think there are so few members with significant life experience who join the Peace Corps?
It’s simple. The Peace Corps doesn’t market well to older people – and they still gear the whole experience to young people – from the language training to the treatment of volunteers. Personally, I think the Peace Corps should split into two organizations – one for young people and one for older, more experienced people. A country as developed and educated as Romania doesn’t need large groups of American kids “helping out” – it needs seasoned American adults training Romanian kids to make social change.

Given the life skills those with greater life experience could bring, do you have any ideas how to encourage enlistment by such people?
Actually, interviews like this are one way, but in terms of direct marketing, I’d advertise along the same channels that Viagra and Oil of Olay do!

It’s time to seriously rethink the program given the current demographics and international development needs. It is a WONDERFUL concept but it’s 50 years old. There IS still a need for young people right out of college in certain parts of the world. But Eastern Europe needs more experienced volunteers.

You stayed in Romania even after your Peace Corp enlistment came to an end and founded a non-profit organization, The Alex Fund, whose mission is “to promote self-sufficiency among marginalized people through education, job training and community development.” The story behind the Foundation’s name and origin is a pretty interesting one. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Shortly after I got to Bacau this barefoot boy who looked about 5 years old set up his begging operation in the middle of a busy intersection right under my balcony. In my naïveté and enthusiasm, I took Alex to a children’s shelter run by the organization I was assigned to. Three days later his mother showed up cursing me for stealing her family’s primary breadwinner. The next thing I knew I was starting a work-training project for the mothers of kids like Alex called Ready, Willing & Able (Gata, Dispus si Capabil) and an education program for the children. (It turned out that Alex was 8 and had never seen the inside of a school.) See www.alexfund.org for more details.

I started the Alex Fund as a Peace Corps volunteer and then when I left the Peace Corps, I started a Romanian NGO (non-profit) called Ovidiu Rom.

  1. The Mothers Program helps impoverished women improve their living conditions and radically change their children’s prospects for the future.
  2. The Children’s Program provides remedial education and enrichment, and helps unschooled children enter the mainstream system.
  3. The Better Neighborhoods project establishes neighborhood associations in urban ghetto areas to help residents improve their living conditions.

The plight of the Roma (aka Gypsies) in Eastern Europe is not an issue most Americans are familiar with. For the benefit of our readers, could you give us a bit of insight into the unique challenges they face?
It is hard to imagine the depth of prejudice against Gypsies in Eastern Europe if you haven’t observed it first hand. From your taxi driver to the most educated professor or theologian the verdict is the same: ‘Gypsies are dirty and dishonest; they’re lazy and manipulative; their children aren’t intelligent or civilized enough to attend mainstream schools, and they don’t want to be a part of mainstream society anyway!’ In fact, all over Europe, a majority of ordinary citizens, as well as government officials believe Gypsies are pretty much hopeless.

In Romania, Gypsies -- or Roma, the preferred term -- receive little protection from their government and far less social services than other citizens. Most Roma children begin their lives without any prenatal care, adequate nutrition, or minimally acceptable housing. Their parents are not able to obtain even unskilled work beyond black market day labor, and the squalid, ramshackle ghettoes where they live – even in large, prosperous cities – typically lack basic public services such as sewage connections, garbage pick-up and street lighting. With little means to support them, fathers often abandon their families or wind up in prison.

UNICEF estimates that less than 10% or Roma children matriculate past primary school. Until recently many mothers without adequate means to care for their children were encouraged to place them in institutions. Such children were not “abandoned” as the media likes to characterize it, but were given up at great personal anguish in desperation.

Often the most outgoing, resourceful children are put on the streets to beg (at about the same age ethnic Romanian children enter kindergarten) – as the only reliable source of income for their families. This form of child labor virtually ensures that the child will get little or no formal education and that the cycle will repeat in the next generation.

Are views in the region at all evolving or do you see them as endemic to it?
Historically, the Roma are a people who have been shunned by society and largely denied their right to employment, education and ownership of land for seven centuries. In fact from the late 14th to the mid-19th century the Roma were literally slaves in Romania. In 1855 the Prince of Moldavia paid the slave owners for each man who was freed. The Roma themselves received no compensation or reintegration assistance. Today there are some 10 million Roma in Eastern Europe and another two million in Western Europe. They are the largest and most marginalized ethnic minority. And Romania has the largest number of Roma of any country in the world.

But the treatment of Roma is increasingly becoming an EU accession issue. Just this year The Decade of Roma Inclusion was launched by the Open Society Institute, the World Bank, and the European Commission, with support from United Nations Development Program (UNDP). This initiative represents the first large scale cooperative effort to improve living conditions for Roma in Europe.

It will probably take 20 years, not 10, to see a real change in attitudes of the majority population, but they will change, as they have changed in the US over the past 50 years, as the Roma population becomes better educated and more integrated. I’m not suggesting that it will become a non-issue, but I am very hopeful that in 20 years educated business people, professors and Orthodox church leaders will not denigrate people of Roma descent in the wholesale fashion that they do today!

Tell us a little bit more about your self-sufficiency “teach ‘em to fish” approach.
Our program is directly modeled after The Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able program in New York whose mission is to improve the lives of the jobless and homeless poor in America. See www.doe.org. Those guys you see cleaning the streets in the blue Ready, Willing & Able uniforms all over New York City are participating in a remarkably successful job training and rehabilitation program. Most of the men in the Doe Fund’s program have had substance abuse problems and spent years in prison. I figured that if “works” with them, why not with Gypsy mothers in Romania?

Do you need to recruit participants?
We started the program by getting the kids begging on the street to take us to their mothers. Since then it has spread like wildfire through word of mouth.

How successful have your efforts been?
Over the past four years our constellation of programs, also called Ready, Willing & Able (Gata, Dispus si Capabil), has grown to serve over 400 children, 100 mothers and an additional 65 families.

Are there any particular success stories you’d like to share?
At this point “success” is a bit of an exaggeration, but the following story is illustrative of what we deal with:

Marius, age 10, had never been to school. He lives in the heart of Bucharest with his father, stepmother and brother just a couple of blocks from a large, recently renovated primary school. Marius’s stepmother does not know how to read or write and his father, a street vendor, is rarely at home. Neither of them have identity documents; consequently, the children have no birth certificates and as a result, they are not allowed to attend school.

In January, two 5th grade girls who lived in the same bloc as Marius brought him to their school counselor. The counselor sent him to us. Our Ready, Willing & Able program had just opened a center in the rear of the school for kids like Marius, i.e., children (mostly Roma) who have fallen through the cracks in the Romanian education system.

We appealed to the first grade teacher and she allowed him to attend her class – as a ”guest”. In two months he had caught up with the other children in the class. He is still not officially registered because he doesn’t have that birth certificate yet. But he’s learning to read and write while we help the family obtain identity documents.

None of this is very complicated or costly – but it is virtually impossible for a poor Roma family to navigate the bureaucratic road blocks to the full rights of citizenship by themselves.

How do you fight against the ingrained attitudes and public biases faced by the Roma?
We engage in public awareness campaigns to persuade the general public that with some concerted, intelligent assistance, the poorest of the poor can indeed change their lives for the better, and that the future of Romania cannot be separated from the future of its most impoverished citizens. We seek to raise public awareness that the cycle of poverty can be broken, that it is wrong for a civilized society to look the other way while children beg on the streets and go without schooling. We encourage the media to write about RWA clients who counter the stereotypes: children raised in poverty doing well in school, their mothers holding down jobs, and whole impoverished communities renovating their houses, that sort of thing.

Have you met with any local resistance to your efforts?
I meet with a lot of people who want to “educate” me on how I’m wasting my time with “those people.” But I have honestly never met with any outright resistance from public officials. In the beginning, their attitude was, “Hey, it’s your money, you want to waste it, go right ahead.” But over time, they have become real supporters. However, I HAVE met with resistance and even threats by Roma leaders who consider me an unwelcome interloper invading their territory and undermining their dynasties.

So there are in fact aspects of their culture that contribute to or compound the challenges they face…
Certainly the woman’s subservient status to her husband is a problem – at first the men like the idea of their wives making a little money – but when the reality of child care as well as the wife’s increased self-esteem set in – domestic violence erupts. But it is important to make the distinction that we work with urban people of Roma descent, not traditional Roma who tend to prefer living outside the dominant culture. The ‘cultural problems’ we face have more to do with the culture of poverty than “Roma Culture.”

You give job training to mothers. Could you give us an idea of the kinds of training you offer and what might be a typical job placement?
On average, the women in our program have a 7th grade education and no prior job experience. This doesn’t make for a lot of job choice. For the most part, we prepare women to work as office cleaners and factory workers, and then we help make the placement, continue to monitor the job situation, provide support groups, individual counseling, emergency help and periodic performance-based bonuses.

It takes money to do what you are doing. Has it been difficult to raise funds for your programs? Where do these funds typically come from?
We consider ourselves social entrepreneurs and we have developed a reputation for getting real results, not just tugging at people’s heart strings or sense of guilt, so raising money is not so much difficult as extremely time-consuming. The larger the grant, the more red tape and restrictions. But getting contributions from individuals usually involves staging events and other labor-intensive marketing efforts – and results in much smaller donations, so that also require a lot of time and energy. We operate with a combination of grants (USAID is our original and largest funder), corporate sponsorships and individual donations.

Do you have any tips to offer the aspiring and energetic social issues advocate?
Spend your first 20 years working in the business sector! You don’t learn how to kick ass and get things done by working for the government or a foundation – nor by working for most non-profits. In fact, quite the opposite. Most of the really effective leaders of non-profits that I know did not start out in the social service or public sector.

You are a recent recipient of USAID’s “Outstanding Citizen” award. Congratulations on that. Any thoughts on receiving accolades for doing the kind of work you do?
It’s a nice surprise. But in a way it makes me sad. I have gotten a lot of praise recently for doing some not very extraordinary things – mostly because I went to a foreign, less developed country to do them. I know there are a lot of unfulfilled mid-life people in America who could do as much or more than I’m doing – but they don’t know how to get started. And we don’t have a good system for helping them channel their abilities and experience in constructive ways that do indeed make the world a little better place.

What do you miss most about the States in general and New York City in particular?
Strangers who smile at you – on the street or in the subway. Basically, it’s just not considered good form in Romania to smile at someone you haven’t been properly introduced to!

How does Leslie Hawke “let it all hang out”?
Sorry, but that’s classified information.

Describe for us your perfect day.
My perfect day is waking up to sunshine, finding three long personal emails from the States in my inbox, getting word of a big donation, working out at the gym, having a lively staff meeting, giving a tour of our programs to a potential supporter, going out to dinner with friends, and finally, going to bed with a really good book, knowing I don’t have any early appointments tomorrow.

Ever plan on coming home?
Not unless I have to.

Interview by Raphie Frank