It is always an unceremonious moment when a person steps off the pedestal of self-indulgence into a position of serving others. But slowly, something new comes into existence and snowballs into an unexpected force. In that moment, everything changes. Renouncing the pleasure of a perpetual self-directed gaze opens the heart to entirely new horizons.
This is the story of Cornel Hoza, the 29 year old founder of Beard Brothers, an NGO based in Cluj. The club’s vision was inspired by North American motorcycle clubs, which have traditionally passed along values such as loyalty and solidarity to young adults.
Like many foolish ideas, the Beard Brothers concept was conceived over a few pints in a pub. The first call to action was a Facebook message in 2013 that read something like: “For all of those out there with a beard, let’s get together. And bring clothes that you no longer wear with you, we’ll find a use for them. Beard on! For those who need us!”
Seven people came to the first meeting. They looked at the map of Romania and found the village of ‘Bearded’ in nearby Mureș County. So they planned a visit to drop off clothing.
“The irony of the story is remarkable,” said Hoza. “We found a village of old people who were starving. They needed food, not clothes. So the Bearded Brotherhood emptied their pockets to buy them food. That was the beginning.”
As a teenager Cornel was somewhere between a ‘wannabe’ and a ‘nobody’. He wasn’t good at mathematics or computers. He was not outgoing. He wasn’t very good at anything that people valued. So he began volunteering at the Romanian Foundation for Children, Community and Family.
“I was considered a loser in my neighborhood. I just couldn’t understand why doing something helpful like volunteering was seen as a dumb activity by others. I just didn’t get it.”
He arrived in Cluj in 2009 to attend university and study economics. His decision hadn’t come out of profound reflection. He was simply trying to find a place in the world.
He found a job in his first year at a slot machine bar that was open 24/7. He worked 24 hours and had 48 hours off.
“The bar was named after a person, just like most neighborhood pubs. The name was Piti or Piști, I’m not entirely sure. I just wanted more independence and money.”
After three years of juggling university studies, bartending and the normal clubbing scene, Cornel had an epiphany. He chose to not complete the dissertation necessary for his university degree.
“It was a conscious decision that a university diploma did not demonstrate my knowledge. I began my university career as a young boy with no vision. Three years later, I decided to be honest with myself,” he recounts.
He decided to try graphic design. For eight months he spent more than twelve hours a day on the computer teaching himself. That was the easy part.
He knocked on many doors to secure a volunteer internship position. He became so desperate for experience that he even offered to pay the company’s water bill, so that company might profit from his internship. Still they refused him.
“The greatest shock is when you volunteer and you are rejected. I couldn’t believe it! In Romania there are so many young people that just want to learn but cannot find people who are willing to teach them. This is just plain wrong. It’s fundamentally wrong.
When you’re in that type of situation, you either sink or swim. I made a promise to myself during those months. If I ever meet someone who simply wanted to learn, I would never say ‘no’. If you’re good at something, it’s important to pass that knowledge on to others,” continues Hoza.`
Ultimately, he managed to get a job at an advertising agency, and then later he started his own business. Already 20 young people have completed internships in his company.
The Beard Brothers growth has always begun with a need to touch the heart of a fellow human. All of the projects have a common theme of trying to bridge the disparities between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in society.
The image of a mother begging for blood at the Center for Transfusions in Cluj (to raise funds for her daughter’s operation) inspired the Beard Brothers to start fundraising to purchase new equipment which would increase the capacity of the Center’s intake of blood donors. The name of the campaign was “Keep the Blood Flowing.”
In another case they encountered Eduard, a 6 year old boy suffering from Ewing Sarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer. From April to June of 2014, they raised 3,354 of the 20,000 Euros needed for Eduard’s operation. He is now healthy.
They recently acquired a van for the Kindergarten for Children with Special Needs. The “Beardmobile” is a wheelchair accessible van that is driven by a member of the Brotherhood. It is also a moving billboard for the Beard Brothers.
The Beard Brothers offer contractor services – all free of charge. They recently renovated the apartment of a retiree, Auntie Rozalia as they call her, in Campia Turzii. Now, they’re renovating the soup kitchen in Cluj where free meals are served once a week.
“The Tutors” program is the Brotherhood’s first foray into education.
“We tutor children in a different way. We give them practical examples so that they can easily absorb the information. From piano to painting, we try to extend into as many areas as possible. In that way, these children won’t have the same problems I had when I finished high school, unsure of the options in life. ” says Cornel.
The Beard Brothers is made up of all sorts of people, from bartenders to managers to human resource specialists to web designers. The youngest member is a 15-year-old boy with barely any peach fuzz.
Nearly 400 people have participated in Beard Brother projects, but there are only 30 official members of the Brotherhood. The hierarchy is simple: volunteer, supporter, and member. Membership into the Brotherhood is based on one’s level of involvement.
“It might take a year, three months, five years, I have no idea. Each one of us understands that change will come because our lives undoubtedly evolve. At some point, you might not have time, and then someone else will take your place.
We have some reservations about growth because it’s easy to turn this kind of thing into a business, and we don’t want that to happen. We do everything in our free time, and there’s no personal gain in any of this. The only person who is paid for their work is our accountant. And we want to keep it that way,” says Hoza.
“A bearded brotherhood with a spirit of initiative, seeking to transform attitudes through their involvement in civil society while fighting against stereotypes and all forms of discrimination” – quote on the Beard Brothers’ business cards.
You don’t need a beard to join the Brotherhood. For the Beard Brothers, their emphasis was never on growing beards. Their identity has more to do with creating the sentiment that volunteering is cool.
“At the beginning, we saw that we could reach people with this appearance. So I said “I think this is a way to transform the whole story into something that seems cool. Because at the end of the day, helping others is cool. It’s great, you feel good when you see that you’re involved in something that transforms society around you.”
“The journey from where we began to where we are now has been very long, but extremely rewarding. The man I was three years ago has nothing to do with the man I am today.
I think that self-confidence is really lacking in Romania. You know, at the end of a seminar, there is always a question-answer period. At this point, a hushed silence comes over the room. I’m convinced that people have many questions to ask but don’t have the courage to voice them.
I was that person not too long ago. I had a ton of questions to ask, but I was deathly afraid that if I said something incorrectly, people would laugh at me. Well, I’m over that, and I know that we have the power in us to change the world, especially if we join forces!
I know I’m an idealist, but I can’t think differently at this point. I’m surrounded by too many great people to give up and lose faith. But this doesn’t mean I don’t see the negative realities. It just means that we’ll keep on fighting as hard as we can,” says Cornel.
Cornel is a sunny person who gives the impression that he’s always chuckling to himself beneath his beard.
It’s hard to unite a group of people. I look at our organization, and I wonder how we’re still standing strong together. I think it’s because we share a common vision to make a difference and to work together to make the world a better place. There are all types of NGOs out there that are specialized in one particular issue. We’re not like that, we don’t have a specific focus.
People who have experience in a variety of business fields have approached me to tell me that I should come up a mission statement. But I don’t want to condition myself in such a way. I would respond to them all with the same answer – my purpose is to do some good and that’s about it.
Recently I was handing out sweets to some poor children in Ciurila. A tiny Roma boy caught my eye. I stretched out my hand to offer him some cookies. He looked at me and said: “I already got some, why don’t you give it to someone who didn’t get any yet”. Wow! These are the moments we live for.” says Cornel Hoza.