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.