Eliza Neag is an eleventh grade student at the National High School Alexandru Ioan Cuza in Alexandria and winner of the National English and Religion Olympiad.
Every weekend, she commutes back to her childhood village to teach “Shakespeare’s language” to the children in the social assistance programs run by the two brothers, Bogdan and Florin Danu. Both Bogdan and Florin are priests with parishes located about 50 kilometers north of Alexandria, in the region of Teleorman.
On Saturdays, between 11:00 am and 12:30 pm, Eliza teaches children from Negrenii de Sus before hopping on her bike and heading to Lada for another round of classes.
In 2012, a priest named Florin Danu, founded the Heavenly Hand Association to build a soup kitchen for children in the village of Lada. The kitchen feeds 40 children each day of the week and over a hundred on the weekend.
The majority of the children come from families that depend on social assistance. Danu ensures that each child stays in school through 8th grade. He also raises money to pay for their transportation to high schools in Alexandria or Oltenia.
His brother, also a priest, applied the same recipe in Negrenii de Sus, a neighboring village.
Denisa Bularda, a school teacher from Bucharest, became a donor after following Father Florin on Facebook as the soup kitchen was being built.
Denisa was so inspired, she sent Florin a message:
“I could help you offer them classes. You feed them a hot meal and I offer them some education. Of course, food addresses their basic needs but you can’t feed a community forever. At some point, you’ll have to set them free and let them soar. You have to educate them so that they can eventually take their community into their own hands.”
“You know, we’re very far from Bucharest. How are you going to manage the commute?” Was the priest’s response.
In 2016, after consulting with her family, she began commuting to the villages in her Daewoo Matiz. Denisa was often on the road 5 hours per day, not including the two hours dedicated to teaching. During the winter, her visits were less frequent due to the road conditions.
She began conjugating the verbs “to have” and “to be” in a community where no one knew the difference between “to be” or “not to be.” She had hopes that teachers from the nearby primary schools or high schools would soon take over.
It didn’t happen immediately.
As she taught English, Denisa Burlada also discovered the need to teach Romanian.
“I realized there were problems when they had to translate from English to Romanian. We noted serious grammar mistakes, even on the exams written by children who were testing for the General Certificate of Secondary Education. In English, they would write everything the way it sounded and they would do the exact same thing in Romania.”
The children were motivated to learn English, so she organized small groups based on proximity to one another so that the children could work together during the week in each other’s homes.
“I gave the older children the responsibility of helping the younger children and after a while, they began organizing this themselves.
They liked the idea, especially because their cell groups had names such as The Butterflies, The Angels, etc. It was a really wonderful thing.”
Along comes Eliza
In the summer of 2017, the principal of the elementary school in Tătărăştii de Sus told Denisa Bularda that she was willing to take over the Romanian classes being taught to children in the Lada Community Center. Through word of mouth, news of the language classes made their way to Eliza Neag, who grew up in Lada before moving to Alexandria for high school.
“Eliza came to observe one of my classes and then she took over the English classes. She got along splendidly, I didn’t realize what a strong will she had. She also took it upon herself to teach in the neighboring village as well.”
Her first English class last summer had 12 students in her class, now her classroom is completely full.
The young volunteer teacher reads classics in English: “Jane Eyre”, “Great Expectations,” and “Death on the Nile”.
“I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and curiosity. In the right environment, these kids want to learn. At the end of the class, I sensed that I really belonged there with the children, sharing with them the secrets of Shakespeare’s language.”
Eliza is well aware that her home county, Teleorman, has gained an infamous reputation as the home of the current Prime Minister who speaks with poor Romanian grammar and cannot speak English at all.
“I continue to believe that Teleorman has values that deserve to be recognized and respected. We are not all uneducated and helpless. It is sad that our country is represented with so little dignity. I will vote for better-trained candidates in terms of management, studies and administration capacity,” says the adolescent Eliza Neag.
She insists that education “is the only weapon of a nation and a passport towards a better world.” That’s why she goes to meet the children of Lada and Negrenii de Sus on a weekly basis. She wants to show them the “advantages of being an educated individual.”
“I want people to see that they are capable of resolving issues for themselves. If we wait for the government, we will be waiting forever.
Does that mean we simply give up? No! There are many people who can create change around them. The government only creates real programs, allowing for distribution to the masses, after it sees successful models initiated by citizens.
People can take responsibility over many things.
Look at Eliza’s example; a single student gathered the children, organized them in groups and taught them something. That is how change happens.
I’ve seen so many situations where people just gave up because they didn’t have the money to pay a tutor and send the kid off to work in Italy.
But that’s not right! Maybe one of the neighbors knows something or perhaps in one of the nearby schools, there’s a child in the twelfth grade who has just won the Math Olympiad. Maybe she can help your son without asking for anything in exchange.”
Denisa and Eliza’s work all began because a local Priest took the initiative to start a food bank.
“In a sentence, my message would be the following: I want to see as many priests as possible getting involved in their communities,” says Father Florin Danu.
“I see the priesthood as a mission to improve lives, not as a job.
In four years, we had only two dropouts from the education program. We have also had some big successes. Two of our students have made it to top high schools in Bucharest. Other children have found employment and are on the path to a healthy life. The fruits of our labor are becoming visible.
As Priests we can’t solve many problems, but we can get the ball rolling. The only credit that can be given to me, if I could even say that, is for having the initial initiative.”