Recently our group went on an excursion to Lupeni, a small town in the Jiu Valley of Romania. The purpose of our visit was to meet with the folks at New Horizons Foundation and learn more about the development work they do. We were able to experience New Horizons’ programs firsthand; spend time with their staff and their founders, Dana and Brandi Bates; and get out in nature and bond together as a group. I came back to Budapest feeling rested, encouraged, and so very inspired.
Service-Learning and Experiential Education as a means of Development
When I studied Romania last year, I learned a bit about New Horizons and the Bates’ work in Romania, so being able to visit was an immense privilege. A few things I learned, and Dana confirmed during our visit, was that communism in Romania destroyed trust, community, and personal agency, and that it left behind a culture of apathy. New Horizons addresses this by working to rebuild community and the next generation’s sense of purpose, ability, and trust as well as instill ethics.
New Horizons seeks to achieve this in two ways, through IMPACT clubs and VIATA experiential education. IMPACT consists of community-based, service-focused clubs for 12-18 year olds. Based on four key pillars, active citizenship, social entrepreneurship, employability, and leadership, youth in IMPACT clubs identify needs in their community and create and implement service projects to address such issues (1). The IMPACT model has spread throughout Romania and has also been adopted by other non-profits working around the world.
While in Lupeni, our group participated in an IMPACT club meeting that took place in a Pentecostal, majority-Roma church. We played games, sang a few songs, then had a breakout time where we were able to talk in small groups through translators. Two students in my group told us about their most recent service project, where they created a park next to the church. They also shared that they love to come to IMPACT because it is really fun and feels like a family.
Nestled high in the mountains, VIATA is New Horizons adventure education camp. With VIATA, students are able to step outside their comfort zone and engage in activities such as ropes courses, rock climbing, hiking, orienteering, ecology, arts and crafts, and more. These activities “impart practical lessons about life such as self-confidence, trust, communication, defining success, problem-solving, and perseverance" (1).
I love New Horizons unique approach to development. Generally, nonprofits tend to focus on meeting physical needs and trackable programs with clear inputs and outputs. This makes the most sense since there are usually obvious needs that need to be addressed. Although God commands us to meet such needs, and this work is very necessary, correcting deeper issues of structural injustice, violence, and brokenness is too often an afterthought. To me, charity is meeting needs, giving handouts, and treating symptoms; justice is moving upstream and addressing the root issue of why people need help in the first place. Responding to needs and going upstream are both essential, but what I love about New Horizons is that it is focusing on the latter in a place that deeply needs it. I also appreciate that New Horizons views poverty not as just a material issue, but acknowledges that it is often a relational and internal issue too.
Building Community...One Trust Fall at a Time
It was a unique opportunity not only to hear about New Horizons work, but to experience the transformative power of it firsthand. We were able to do this for one whole day with the VIATA program. As much as I love the city, it was wonderful to be out in nature on the ropes course. We started with trust falls and other similar group exercises that forced us to rely on one another.
Next we did the element that stood out the most to me. We were split into two groups on a low-ropes course where we had to get both groups to each other’s sides. All that was connecting our groups was a wire three feet above the ground strung between a few trees. It took an hour and a half to complete the exercise and it required some serious teamwork and coordination, but I was impressed with how well our group worked together and supported one another.
It struck me how the exercise countered two very strong norms in our American culture: competition and individualism. Since it was a group exercise, it was in all of our best interests to work together. We had to look out for each other and help one another because we couldn't leave anyone behind. Instead of being a competition, we had to coordinate with the other team so we would both be successful in completing the task. It also required all of our active participation. In my group I felt like everyone had a voice and worked well together. Overall, the experience reminded me of a quote from Desmond Tutu, “I am because we are,” (echoing the philosophy of Ubuntu) and I believe the experience with VIATA helped draw our community closer together.
An Update: Resting, Wrestling, and Falling in Love with Eastern Europe
I haven't written much about life in Budapest since we have been traveling recently, but i'm continuing to love every second here. I can't believe November is already dawning on us! One of the biggest blessings of this semester is that I've been able to truly rest for the first time in quite awhile. There is space in my life to read, write, pray, spend time with God, reflect, and wander. This has been so, so good for my soul and I feel content, filled up, and at peace. But one reason this semester has been so restful is because I haven’t felt overly challenged. Although I love the classes I’m taking, and am learning new things, generally we’re diving deeper into topics, like social change, that with studying in the humanities I’m used to reading, discussing, and thinking about. And as far as our living conditions, Budapest is such a modern city (with a mild climate) that I don’t find it challenging to live here either. The main way I have been challenged this semester, though, is relationally within our group, and even that has been mild.
Nevertheless, I think God knew what I needed this semester and I’m still convinced this is where I’m meant to be. I desperately needed rest, and I have that here. I wasn't expecting a crazy, life-changing experience – I've had that before, and it has led me to the path I’m currently on, where I feel like God wants me to be. I anticipated loving Budapest, and I do. I expected this experience to confirm my interest in working in Eastern Europe, which it most certainly has.
I’m fascinated by communism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the history of this region – with the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, through both World Wars, and communism – and how that has impacted its present day realities and challenges. It feels like the perfect combination of things I naturally love (Europe, rich history and culture, architecture, and a mild climate) and a place where the issues I’m passionate about working with are present (economic stagnation, lack of employment opportunities, vulnerability to human trafficking, influx of refugees, and a history of conflict). More than all of that though, there is just something about this place that captures my heart and it makes me excited for the future.
My excitement has come with pangs of confliction and doubt though. What do I, as a foreigner who doesn’t know the culture or speak a second language, have to offer? Am I really the most equipped to be working here? Why should an organization give me a position, in a place where employment is so hard to come by? What would it look like to do work here that is genuinely mutually beneficial? I definitely believe there is a role for foreigners working with development abroad, and I don't have to figure this out anytime soon, but I think it’s healthy to be wrestling with such questions.
Our fall break is just beginning and several students in my group have family coming to visit and/or are planning to travel throughout Europe. My parents fly in this Sunday and I'm really looking forward to spending time with them. We're planning on heading to Croatia for a few days then exploring Budapest.