Poland 2015, A LE Summer

Written by volunteer, Michelle Peters

On one of our walks home from the days lessons, my host-mom took this photo of me, my host sisters, and my host cousins. Since the start, I had been enchanted with my little Polish host-sisters, and life at my host-family’s house only got better when their cousins and aunt arrived from Germany. My Polish-born/German-raised host cousins started attending my English lessons as soon as they arrived, and they quickly joined the ranks with my host-sisters as some of my most loyal and eager students. When we weren’t at the community center for the English lessons, we were in our backyard playing or taking walks around the neighborhood. I also got to spend a great deal of time with my host-aunt. She taught me how to make traditional Polish potato pancakes with the German topping of a tart applesauce. I had gone to Poland hoping to gain an understanding of Polish culture, and by the time I left, I had certainly gained that through my stay with my wonderful Polish host-family, who I still keep in touch with. Much to my surprise, I had even learned a bit about German culture in the process. I think this is a testament to the fact that once you open the door for some cultural exchange there are few limits to what will transpire and what will be gained. I’m immensely grateful to LE for opening that door for me.

Continue reading

Summer of 2016 – An Invitation To The Embassy

Summer of 2016 - An Invitation To The Embassy

The summer of 2016 was very special. The adventures of catching a bus, speaking the Panamanian slang, celebrating street festivals, and getting invited to the U.S. Embassy were a few of the adventures LEPanama experienced.   The Panamanians welcomed us; from their homes and their schools, to their communities. 

It was the first year Learning Enterprises teamed up with the Ministry of Education (MEDUCA) to discuss real change on ways for improving the Panamanian education system. 

Over the years , Learning enterprises has become well known in Panama , and in 2016 LEPanama was invited to the U.S Embassy where they were personally thanked by the U.S ambassador for sparking a great change in the Panamanian education system.This experience has by far been the biggest in LEPanama history. 

About The Author

Jasmine is a UC Berkeley alumni and was a teacher volunteer for the Panama program in the summer of 2015. She returned as program director for the summer of 2016.

Transportation, Food, and Foreign Languages

Transportation, Food, and Foreign Languages

Written by volunteer Tim Coan, originally on http://gucaravel.com/on-transportation-food-and-foreign-languages/

Each day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, my host family and I formally sit down and eat together. At one of the dinners this week, my host sister had a friend visiting her family, and he asked me what struck me most about Romania as different from my life back in the United States. So, here are the three things I find most different about life in Romania in the Transylvanian region:

1. One afternoon, my host family decided to take me to their wine cellar on the property they own in another town, and they asked me how I wanted to get there: by car or by cart. Horse-drawn cart, that is. I chose the cart, and soon enough I was climbing into the back of a cart pulled by two large, brown horses. As we rode through the streets, a man driving a Mercedes pulled up behind us and patiently waited until there was enough room on the side of the road for him to pass us.  This is not uncommon, either. Each day I leave the house, I always see many people riding in horse-drawn carts and people driving cars, waiting to get around them so that they can pass. This contrast of old and new, using horse carts for transportation instead of cars, as well as potentially a stark contrast in income, really struck me as interesting and different from home.

2. While the food eaten in Romania is definitely different from what I usually eat at home (stuffed cabbage, anyone?), where the food comes from is also very different: the backyard. It seems like every meal, my host family is telling me that we are eating something that they grew themselves or got from one of their animals. Whether it’s the raspberries that we picked together from the raspberry bushes on the side of the house, the peaches from the peach trees in the backyard, or the cottage cheese from the cow, almost everything is prepared straight from homegrown produce. The wine we’re drinking is from the grapes in the vineyard. The honey, we get from the bees that the family keeps. The only food I know they have not made themselves is the bread we eat with every meal and the pizza we ordered for lunch on Friday. Even today, my host mother was turning some of the berries she gathered into jams so that she can put them in the freezer and save them for the winter.

3. Finally, the foreign languages present on the radio, marked on products, and on signs stood out to me. While Spanish is becoming a major language in the US, you will rarely ever see it used outside of a classroom, at least in Baltimore where I live. In this part of Romania, I am living with a Hungarian-speaking population. However, all government buildings (police, schools, etc.) use Romanian on signs and official notices, as it is the official language of Romania. When I walk into the grocery store, many of the products are in English, with no Hungarian or Romanian on the wrapping at all, as far as I could tell – something that would never happen in the US. Finally, the radio plays many popular American songs, but I haven’t heard any songs in Hungarian or Romanian. Besides Despacito, the only songs on the radio in the US are in English.

So, there you have it: the three things I find most different about Romania after one week of living with my host family.


21 Days in Hungary

21 Days in Hungary

Written by volunteer Sarah Sheets, originally published on her blog https://21daysinhungary.tumblr.com/

Teaching and the Students

I came to love the civil center where we worked. I could not think of Hungary without Szilvia and Anniko coming to mind. They were both such friendly faces to see in the office every morning. They were always smiling– they smiled when I unsuccessfully tried to use their coffee maker and spilled coffee grinds everywhere, and they smiled when we got ourselves even more confused when trying to understand why the English language is the way it is. I looked forward to eating lunch with them every day, and one of my favorite memories with them was watching the Hungary vs. Portugal game in the pub above the office (which was a prime location, might I add), drinking cheap wine and beer that we bought in the corner store, and laughing at different people’s game-day attire.

I also can’t forget to mention my adult students. Finishing my last lesson at Papita, I held back a few tears. It was incredible to compare my first and last conversations with them, because of how much they had improved. I will always look back on those warm afternoons thinking only of happiness. 

The last thing I wanted to mention was the incredible tolerance I found in the civil center. I’d prepared myself for lots of prejudice against gypsies, or “colored” people (I found it interesting that the same term was used as in America for two very different groups of people who face undue discrimination), and instead found myself teaching gypsy foster children in an incredibly caring and supportive environment. I know this kind of thinking is not representative of Hungary as a whole, but it was a wonderful thing to see where some progress is being made, and how the relationship between economic and social class that has for so long proved impossible to separate is slowly, but surely, being unbound.

Volunteering has ironically not been the theme of my three weeks in Hungary– it was instead the incredible generosity of the Hungarian people I met, and all that they showed me. Reflecting on my experiences in Hungary can be put very simply. It exceeded any and all expectations, and I feel both incredibly privileged and incredibly proud to have been able to see all that I saw and do all that I did. Saying “Szia” to Hungary is a very bittersweet thing.

Host Family

Bubu and Gyorgy seem to have a very simple life. Every morning, they eat bread and homemade apricot marmalade. Sometimes they drink coffee, other days tea. They go to work– Gyorgy takes the car to various construction projects, and Bubu takes the bus into the city. At 5, they return to the house, throw off their shoes, and relax. Laundry is hung to dry in the warm Hungarian breeze, cherries are picked from the garden, dinner is cooked, the lights are turned off. Their cat sleeps on the porch. A typical family. But like the cover of your favorite book, the surface only relays a fraction of the stories beneath.

     Dinner is full of teasing. The most commonly heard words from Bubu’s mouth were, “Gyorgy…. very stupid.” I don’t think there was a dinner where we weren’t brought to tears laughing at something. Just last night, it happened to be about google’s translation of “suitcases” in english, to “kindergarten teacher” in hungarian. Of course, we ate zero vegetables, lots of cheese, and finished with some cookies and wine. 

     Some nights, we would go to the lake (Orfu) to swim and relax before dinner. The drive was half the reason to go– a small, winding road that twisted through green forests and golden fields, the sun setting over the lake. Other nights, neighbors would come over for dinner, or we would all go grab drinks in the city. 

     But night time was the only time for relaxing. Every day, Bubu has something planned. She frequently went to villages to learn more about their local culture, and help with ‘programs’ that were planned there. The true definition of a grass-roots organizer, this woman has the most energy of anyone I have ever met. We often listened to her talk for half an hour without skipping a beat. I think that without the language barrier, we might have been able to listen to Bubu for the rest of our lives. And we would enjoy every minute of it. These are all signs of a person whose ultimate motivator is a deep fascination with the fullest experience of life itself.

    Bubu and Gyorgy showed me a life that is a balancing act between optimism and realism which they perform so effortlessly. I will never be able to express how grateful I feel for their generosity in welcoming us into their home with such easygoing happiness. I know we will stay in touch, and I hope they know that if Bubu and Gyorgy ever want to come to California, they have a place to stay (though I can’t promise food of the same delicious quality as was provided to me). I have only good, great, and greater things to say about them, and the memories I have made in Hungary are some I will carry with me for the rest of my life. 

Zsolnay Cultural Quarter

This week, I was fortunate enough to be given a short tour of the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter of the town by a woman who has lived her whole life here.

Judit certainly talks a lot. We must have had over 50 “very nice old buildings” pointed out to us. But the Zsolnay quarter was the birthplace of the most quintessential Pécsi material– Eozin. The Zsolnay family built the factory that produced the coveted blue, green, or even purple and pink material that has become a symbol of Pécs.

I asked Judit about her experiences growing up near the working factory. She reminisced about touring the bustling factory as a child, with a big smile on her face. It turns out she was a classmate of Matyasovsky Zsolnay Zsofia, the granddaughter of the man who ran the factory, Miklos Zsolnay. Judit mentioned that during her lifetime, she saw the factory taken under control by the state. I naturally asked Judit how different life was under socialism, but her answers were milder and less definite than the ways I had been taught to think of life behind the Iron Curtain.

Judit was an interpreter for the Russian officials when they visited Pécs, and she often led them around the factory. In Judit’s grandmother’s garden, there were lots of pieces made in this factory. Interestingly enough, in Hungary, socialism did not hit city families too harshly. While farmers were pressed by increased quotas and business owners were targeted, factory worker wages remained as high as before in Pécs, even as people worked with less productivity, according to Judit. She called this “gulash socialism” because most people still had plenty to eat.

However, she did mention to me that when the factory was nationalized in the late forties, the Zsolnays were taken in to custody to be questioned, as they were part of the bourgeois class that was targeted in the regime change. Zsofia, her classmate, went to an orphanage. But Judit mentioned that the workers in the factory had loved the Zsolnays, because they had treated their workers fairly and paid them a good wage. The proof in this was that the workers helped smuggle food into the cell where Zsofia’s parents were kept.

After the fall of the iron curtain, when the factory was privatized again, Judit explained that due to lots of arguments over ownership rights, the factory was never restored to its former glory. Today, only one small part of one of the buildings is used to make small ceramics, and it was obvious that Judit thought it shameful, compared with what it used to be.

This is just one of a few stories I have been told that I wanted to record, both for myself, and for especially my host-mother, who cares so much about the preservation and spread of Hungary’s different local cultures.

The Lake

The inevitably disappearing ripples in the water let fascination play on my face. It never ceases to hypnotize; it never ceases. The shadows grow and shrink over my bronzing skin, approaching just to recede once more. Water resists limb and I resist reality. Shame, anxiety, vanity are carried away with each ripple and every shadow, until nothing but the ever-changing mirror that surrounds me remains. Words mean nothing here– here, we only understand the sounds of laughter and the heat of a relentless Hungarian sun. I shed myself. I search for and cannot find the words to mean being here and nowhere else. For the first time in a long while, I am nothing and need nobody. It leaves an indescribable trace, a blank stare on my face and a heart that beats to feel just once more the blissful and ignorant peace of the lake. 

The 'Million Dollar Question': The Village

On the second Monday of our stay in Pecs, Bubu arranged to travel with some volunteers to a few villages quite close to the Hungary/Croatia border. After about an hour-long journey in the morning rain, we arrived in Tesenfa at a small house with a large yard with some tables, covered by white tents, with an eclectic group of volunteers sitting beneath them. Volunteers from all different parts of the region (mostly Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, and Hungary) were taking part in a kind of volunteer exchange. As I understood it, the volunteers got food and accommodation while they helped traditional Hungarian families on different projects and operations. Some were helping to build a greenhouse on a small farming plot. Others were learning how to make clay ‘ornaments’ in the traditional village style. Others still were cleaning shingles for fixing a roof. 

Our group simply watched this taking place. Most of the homes were small. Few had cars– bikes seemed to be the preferred method of transport. Water ran cold from the spickets; dogs and cats roamed from house to house. Small children played soccer in the shade. Broken, rusty objects were strewn about in many grassy yards. 

We ended our tour with the village’s reformist church. A short, wrinkled, smiling woman walked up to us; her round glasses showed the pride in her eyes as she spoke about the church. It was built in the mid-1800′s. Decades ago, the church was a center of the village, with over 160 regularly attending. Today, she said it was lucky to see 5 or 6. She continued to explain how the younger people of the villages never stay around, anymore– they leap at the first chance to escape to the bigger cities like Pecs or Budapest, or even leave Hungary behind entirely. Emigration from both rural Hungary and Hungary in general seemed to be troubling for many of the volunteers. It was deemed the ‘million dollar question’: in the face of urbanization– which draws younger generations towards it like flies to honey– how does a village retain both its culture and its youth? Can it have both? 

At lunchtime, we returned to the volunteer meeting place. Food was served in no shortage– lentils, cold vegetable salad, and plenty of fresh bread. Laughter only briefly interrupted the constant sound of conversation I have come to expect from Hungarians. We finished eating, washed our dishes, and said our goodbyes as the volunteers returned to their posts, the sun, as always, beating down on everything below. 

These small villages are truly rich centers for the past. A rural lifestyle may be a bit more dusty than one in the city, but all in all, I didn’t see poverty in the same way it is known in the United States. The inhabitants are proud of their products, whether it be textiles with well-known Hungarian sayings on them or ceramics with their village’s coat of arms. The biggest question is whether this can be a lifestyle that younger generations will see the value of, instead of just a cultural sight for tourists like me to pass through.

A Day at the Lake

A Day at the Lake

Written by volunteer, Tim Coan, originally on http://gucaravel.com/a-day-at-the-lake/

An aging tower sits in the middle of a field in Transylvania.

Near the little town of Szalard located in Transylvania, my  home for the last two weeks, is a manmade lake that the locals frequently use for swimming, fishing, and hanging out. My host family and I originally planned on being at the lake on Saturday, but a fast-moving thunderstorm interrupted our plans just as we arrived at the lake on our bikes. So, we headed home in the rain in order to  regroup and formulate a new plan to head back to the lake on Sunday. Thankfully, the weather on Sunday was a lot nicer and perfect for swimming, so my host brother, a neighbor, and I headed to the lake for a relaxing afternoon.

The lake is about 20 minutes away by bike through open fields and farms, affording us to experience the land and the city’s culture. On our way,  we took a short detour to see an aging tower in one of the fields. The tower is hundreds of years old and belonged to an old Hungarian King. Beyond the aged tower was a new tower being built at the top of a hill as a lookout point over the whole valley. While not finished yet, we still climbed to the top and looked across the horizon.

In the same trip, we also stopped at a fountain bubbling with mineral water. The water tasted a bit like copper, but our neighbor joked that it cured any hangover as he filled his water bottle to the top.

A panoramic view of the Transylvanian countryside from the top of a lookout tower.

Finally, we arrived at the lake and met up with some of our neighbor’s friends on a dock overlooking the lake. The lake sits at the top of a hill with beautiful panoramic views of the valley. Around the lake are benches and docks with a snack shack run by some of the villagers. As we sat on one of the docks, American pop music started blaring over someone’s speaker, and we moved a mini-trampoline to the edge of the dock. Soon enough, everyone was doing flips and dives into the water off the trampoline. As the sun began to set around 9:00 p.m., someone passed around a bottle of wine to share as we enjoyed the view.

My Summer in Poland

My Summer in Poland

Written by volunteer, Michelle Purnama originally on https://freelymagazine.com/2017/09/29/my-summer-in-poland

I recall trying to teach algebra to my younger sister 7 years ago. I remember my frustration when she struggled to comprehend what I was trying to teach her. I told myself that I would not be able to be a good teacher. Fast-forward 7 years later, when I had the opportunity to spend my summer teaching English in a village in Southern Poland called Zalasowa – a scenario which my younger self would never have imagined.

It all started after I saw a Facebook post about a summer teaching program by a senior who completed the program. I love children and traveling, but I was not sure about teaching based on my past experience teaching my sister. Regardless, I still applied, hoping that my genuine interest would compensate for my lack of teaching expertise. I was a bundle of nerves during the interview, so receiving the letter of acceptance was a concoction of emotions – partially excitement, but mostly anxiety for what was to come. When I arrived in Poland, I met the other American volunteers who seemed highly capable of  teaching English. My self-doubt started kicking in because English is not my first language.

Throughout the course of my teaching, there were nights of worries and nights spent not knowing what to teach my students the next day. There were days when I had to overcome the blank stares from my youngest students as they could barely understand me without a translator. Sometimes, my lesson plans did not work and I had to create a new one on the spot. One day, I was teaching directions using action cards, but my students struggled to remember the words. Then, I switched it up and asked them to dance to a song and move according to the action words that I shouted out. The result: everyone started jumping and laughing and we even stayed past when class was supposed to end! Despite these moments of fun, teaching for 3 hours a day is still much more difficult than it sounds, and the daily uncertainty proved to be mentally exhausting.

However, I quickly grew to love my daily teaching routine. I grew to love even the mischievous students as I learned how to turn their mischief into learning opportunities. I grew to love the sense of accomplishment after finishing each class, which made me look forward to seeing my students’ smiles and laughter in class the next day. Moreover, how could I forget that one time when my youngest group of students gasped from the back of the class when I pulled out my stickers? Everyday was filled with joy and illuminated by their playful spirits.

Over time, I learned how to manage challenges head-on and I found myself taking on each day with a more positive, can-do attitude. Most  importantly, I realized the necessity  of celebrating small milestones  for both myself and my students.  I patted myself on the back whenever I did something well and gave out candy and stickers as prizes to my students whenever they did something well, which kept us all motivated. While they learned English from me, I learned how to be a child  again, in terms of creativity and freedom of expression. My fear turned into excitement, which gradually sparked my passion in teaching.

Outside of the classroom, I got to interact with my host families (I was placed with 2 host families). Their hospitality was unbelievable, to the extent that it was unsettling at first! They went the extra mile to make sure that I always had what I needed. On my first day with my second host family, my host mom offered me a cup of coffee, to which I answered yes. Little did I know that she would serve me a cup of coffee every morning, although I wanted it only on that particular morning.

My host families made me feel like I was a part of them. On my last day of teaching, my 7-year- old host sister told her mom that after the program, “she would just be staring at the computer” – her way of expressing her sense of loss after I was gone. The extent of warmth and affection that they displayed to a stranger like me still feels surreal even until now, and I long to go back. It is the same longing for home that I experience when I have been abroad for a long time. Instead of going back home to Indonesia to spend my summer with my family, I found two new families in Poland.

I left my host community with a heavy heart. At the bus station, I was trying to fight back my tears, but I ended up bawling when all of my host siblings started to embrace me strongly. Their fondness of me touched my heart, and the painful truth that I might not see them in the near future started to really sink in.

I kept a journal with me throughout this program to keep track of my days in Poland and upon reading through my entries, I realized that I have actually benefitted from this program as much as it has benefitted my host community. My impulsive decision to jump into the water was one of the best decisions I have ever made. On top of all of the fond memories made, I have learned to speak with confidence and to trust in myself. My self-doubt proved to be futile since I have proven to myself that I do not have to be a native English speaker to teach English like a native. It is all in the mind, they say, and I could not agree more.

My summer in Poland was a journey of rediscovering myself, validating my values, and ultimately letting myself grow in a place like no other. Albeit it was short, it was meaningful and memorable. My heart tells me that I will go back, and I believe that I will. Perhaps not so soon, but someday, I definitely will. Zalasowa, you have a special place in my heart, and I will be counting down to the day when we will be reunited.

About the Author

I am Michelle Purnama, an international owl from Indonesia. I am a Sophomore, Management Information Systems (MIS) & Entrepreneurship double major. I have recently been elected as the Co-President of Women’s Entrepreneurial Organization at Temple, an organization that empowers aspiring female entrepreneurs. Regardless, we welcome women and men, Americans and non-Americans! This past summer, I volunteered with a non-profit organization called Learning Enterprises to teach English in Zalasowa, Poland, for 5 weeks. Other than teaching, I got to experience the Polish lifestyle, learn a little bit of Polish, and double my appetite through the delicacy of Polish food.

My First Week in A Romanian Orphanage

My First Week in A Romanian Orphanage

Tim being interviewed by a local news station on teaching English in a Romanian orphanage.

Written by volunteer: Tim Coan originally on http://gucaravel.com/my-first-week-in-a-romanian-orphanage/

In my psychology class last semester, we discussed child development focusing on Romanian orphanages as an example of an environment in which kids struggled to develop socially due to a lack of attention resulting from overcrowding. So, when I realized that my last three weeks in Romania would be spent living in a Romanian orphanage, I was anxious  and uncertain about what to expect.

The sign marking the entrance to Saniob where the orphanage is located

The soccer field down the street from the orphanage.

With one week in the orphanage complete, I am happy to report that the living conditions and the kids are good! The orphanage is clean and has about 25 kids living here, and the kids are just as energetic and social as any of the other kids I have met so far. The kids living in this orphanage are aged 10-17, and another home nearby has all of the orphans that are younger than ten.  The kids in both orphanages come together to eat lunch and dinner. While the food is not as great as with my host family back in Szalard, it is still good.

While the orphans do not speak much English, within about 15 minutes of my arrival, three of the boys asked me what seemed to be a very important question: “Barcelona or Real?” While I don’t have much of a preference for either of these  Spanish soccer teams, I quickly said “Real” and was greeted with cheers from two of the boys and a groan from the third. The Barcelona-Real rivalry runs strong even here in a little Transylvanian orphanage, it seems. Next was an even more important question: “Fútbol?” For the rest of the day, and most of the first week, we kicked a soccer ball around in the yard outside the orphanage or in a  field down the street.

On Monday night, my second night in the orphanage, one of the girls was celebrating her 17th birthday. At around 9:00 p.m., we all gathered in a room upstairs, ate a big dinner, and blasted a mixture of Romanian, Hungarian, and American music. The kids sung “Happy Birthday” in English, Hungarian, Romanian, and German. Finally, a big cake was brought out covered in chocolate icing. Several people stood and talked about the birthday girl. The celebration was very similar to parties in the United States.

My class on Wednesday offered a new experience that was quite different than most other classes because we had a TV crew filming it! Duna, the local Hungarian TV Station, came to my class and filmed my students speaking English and playing some games. After class, I was interviewed for about ten minutes and asked questions about my time in Romania so far, why I had come to teach English, and, of course, about the food. Being interviewed on foreign TV was a surreal experience that I won’t forget.

Across the street from the orphanage is an old church that I did not think anything of until Thursday when we walked over to see the excavations taking place. The church was built after relics from St. Stephen, including his hand, were brought to the area, and a fortress was also constructed. While the fortress has long been destroyed, archaeologists began to  dig out what remains of the fortress and its preserved artifacts. Before the World Wars, the area hosted a yearly pilgrimage in September. attended by as many as 15,000 people. Today, the number has dropped below 1,000 people. While I was engrossed in the history of the site, the children accompanying me were caught up with a stray kitten they found wandering the grounds.

Transylvanian Hospitality

Transylvanian Hospitality

Written by volunteer, Tim Coan, originally found on http://gucaravel.com/transylvanian-hospitality/

“Hey! Come back here!” My head swivels at the English as I walk down the street to watch the soccer practice that many of the orphans are taking part in. “Come back!” I hear again, a voice coming from the little pub, the only one in the village, that I just passed. As I make my way back towards the pub, a man greets me and says “American, right?” I nod my head, and he immediately smiles and says to me, “Come in, drinks on me.”

The hospitality I have experienced in Romania in the past weeks never ceases to amaze me. In this instance, a group of people sitting at the pub on a hot August night saw me walking down the street and immediately decided to invite me over for a drink. As we sat at the table, with one of them speaking English fairly well after having lived in Denmark for some time, they asked me all about my experiences so far, how I liked their country and their town, and about life back home in the U.S.

After having a drink, we all made our way to the soccer field where practice was in full swing. The temperatures this week have been hitting 100 degrees every day, but at this point in the evening the sun was beginning to set, and the temperature was just beginning to drop. As we moved to the field, the coach kicked some soccer balls over, and we began shooting at the goal. The players had a game in which each person had two shots at the goal to try and score on the goalie, and if they did not score on one of those two shots, they were out. This was played until only one person remained. Most players, including myself, were eliminated after the first two shots.

The coach was very interested in what I was doing here in Romania, beginning by asking if I was German or Austrian. Most of the foreigners that come to Szentjobb come from these two countries, so he was a bit more interested when I told him that I was American. Before he headed to the other side of the field to conduct some drills with the younger players, he turned to me and said I was always welcome as a member of the team.

In addition to the hospitality here in Szentjobb, my host family from my first three weeks stopped by for a visit on Tuesday. They get their water from a pump in this village, and decided to stop by and say hello before leaving for Croatia the following day. They also brought some food for me – a very welcome sight. With only one week left in Romania, their visit reminded me of the awesome experiences I have had over the past 6 weeks, the incredible people I have met, and how grateful I am to have experienced this hospitality this summer.

A Summer in Romania & Croatia

Below, our Romania & Croatia Program Director, Haley Moen, writes about her experiences volunteering on the program last summer. The Romania & Croatia program is an interesting program based across two European countries with a variety of teaching settings. For more details, please visit the program page

Session 1: Solanta Orphanage, Romania

My experience at Solanta orphanage was defined by universal languages and an appreciation for simplicity. Although I often felt frustrated by the steep language barrier, I went to bed every night feeling content because of the small yet impactful moments that filled each day.

My favorite moments at the orphanage were when the children and I discovered common languages such as sports.  I’ll never forget how shocked some of the boys were when they learned that I, (a girl!), could juggle and pass a soccer ball. Soon enough, we played soccer almost every day on their worn-down, patchy field with two crooked goal posts on either end.  It didn’t matter that we spoke different languages because we all understood the sport. The passes, dribbles, sprints, high-fives, and shouts of names were the only forms of communication that we needed. Our games would always get too competitive, which made them even more fun!

Another universal language we discovered was music. I was so excited when I realized that most of the children knew “The Cup Song” from Pitch Perfect. They tapped out the beat on plastic cups while I sang. One of my favorite students, Atilla, even tried to learn all the lyrics; he just mumbled out similar-sounding syllables as I sang the real words since it was pretty advanced vocabulary for his level. It was a great effort, though! I was proud.

Some of my other favorite universal languages were drawing, dancing, smiling, and laughing. It sounds cheesy, but I felt most connected to the children when we laughed and acted goofy together.  Although Eva and I only taught English for one or two hours every morning, the love that was exchanged between us and the children was why we went to bed every night feeling like we made an impact—no matter how small or fleeting it was.

Along with my excitement for common languages, I also appreciated the beauty of simplicity. Life at the orphanage was minimal. Every day we ate plain white bread, cucumbers, and hot tea for breakfast. Eva and I taught our lessons on a picnic bench or on the pavement using only construction paper, markers, chalk, and a dirty tennis ball. During the evenings we sat on our front steps and watched the sun set as the boys milked the brown goat named Susie. Some of the boys would chase the goats and sheep around the pen—the object of their game was to try an animal before it got away. They spoke and shouted in Hungarian; I only understood their laughter as they poked fun at each other and dashed after the sheep. Above all, the children’s love and support for one another were clear. They always had a smile to give and their smiles were always more than enough to receive. It was during those times when I acknowledged the brilliance of simplicity and when I felt deeply grateful for everything that I learned at the orphanage.

Session 2: Biograd na Moru, Croatia

Biograd na Moru contrasted greatly from the orphanage. First, my relationship with my Croatian students were less intense because I only saw each class for one hour a day, and most of the classes only met three times a week.  I was strictly a teacher to the Croatian kids, whereas I felt more like an older sister at the orphanage.  This  type of LE experience in Biograd allowed me to focus directly on my teaching skills, which was rewarding and enjoyable.  For example, I spent much more time lesson planning since I actually had structured classes with luxurious tools such as a projector, laptop, and copy machine. Since Anya and I taught during weekday mornings, we spent our afternoons at our favorite beaches and spent our weekends traveling to nearby Croatian cities with our host Mom, Drina.  These excursions allowed Anya and me to experience Croatian culture and nightlife. For example, we watched the sun set in Zadar, which is famous for Ernest Hemingway’s claim that Zadar has the most beautiful sunsets in the world (I could not agree more)!

Another great day in Biograd was August 5: the Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day/Day of Croatian Defenders. This national holiday commemorates Croatia’s War of Independence in 1995, when the Croatian Army took the city of Knin during Operation Storm and ended the Republic of Serbian Krajina. I felt so lucky to celebrate this day in Biograd, where there were festivals, food, singers, performers, fireworks, and more.

The more I reflected by the sea and the more I saw of Croatia, the more I realized the enormity of our world and the different types of people that inhabit it. I spent my childhood and early teenage years thinking that I could “change the whole world”—I would literally daydream about the ways I could impact the entire world.  My LE summer made me realize that the overwhelming complexity of the planet can be solved with the cultivation of meaningful relationships and the discovery of common languages.  Overall, the best part about LE is that every volunteer has a unique experience, and each interprets his or her own experience in different ways. One thing for sure is that LE provides an opportunity for people to discover significant things about the world and themselves while befriending people that they otherwise probably would have never met.  This summer was unforgettably incredible, and I feel so grateful to have lived it.