It's nothing but mud, ice and tufts of frozen grass now. As the Eastern Europe winter deepens, the small patch of land next to the Bravicea village's war monument, where children play soccer and hopscotch during the warmer months, is largely deserted, save for the odd chicken, goose, or goat searching for a missed morsel of forage.
It may not be much to look at now, but as I pass the "Monument" each morning on my way to the school where I teach health as a Peace Corps volunteer, I am filled with hope, envisioning the community project we want to complete there in the months ahead: a bare-bones outdoor sports facility for a rural village that, like so many in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, has long gone without.
Compared to the facilities I enjoyed growing up in the United States, what we plan to build will be modest in the extreme, but the complex I see will be so much more than gymnastics bars, a basketball court and gravel track. It will be:
Another reason to believe in the possibility of a better future for a village that can't be blamed for wondering if good fortune has deserted it.
A humble but very real example of a foreign policy -- namely compassion and commonality -- we can all support.
A gift I can leave for the the school children who have given me so much.
The union of the communities in which I grew up and my adopted home.
While the idea of building a sports facility first came up during a brainstorming activity last fall with the eighth-graders from my Active Citizens club, the story of our community project begins with the demolition of the school's festivities and sports hall to make way for a school annex in 1991, the same year that Moldova broke away from the crumbling Soviet Union.
In case you haven't heard of Moldova -- I hadn't either when I began the Peace Corps application process -- it's a small landlocked country of 4.3 million people, wedged between Romania and Ukraine. Conditions here deteriorated rapidly in the post-Soviet years, and Moldova continues to struggle both to make its voice heard within the European political landscape and to make the transition to a market-oriented economy.
The poverty rate has dropped by more than half since the late 1990s when, according to the World Bank, more than 80 percent of the nation was living on less than $1 a day, but rural poverty remains entrenched, as the cost of living has risen while sources of income outside of farming have disappeared.
It's not unusual to hear older Moldovans bemoan the loss of the relative stability of the Soviet era. Yes, there were clear negative impacts on local culture during 50 years of Soviet rule, but basic goods were affordable and services more dependable. With adequately salaried jobs scarce, Moldovan workers have left the country en masse. Nearly 25 percent of the population now works outside the country, many of them illegally, and the largest slice of the nation's economic pie -- more than 35 percent in 2007 -- is the remittance money making its way back to Moldova.
While, as the joke goes, the currency-exchange business thrives here, the sad reality is that families suffer. Workers often remain abroad for years at a time, leaving a generation of children to grow up without one or both parents. At my school here in Bravicea, one in four students has at least one parent working abroad; many live with their grandparents, some alone.
Material conditions are equally challenging in this agricultural community of 4,000 nestled among the rolling hills of Moldova's wine-producing region. Three times work began on the school annex, but it never advanced past the laying of the foundation because of funding shortfalls. Now, 17 years later, it doesn't look as though the annex and new gym will happen any time soon, and students continue to make do with a dirt field down the road, until the mud of winter and spring forces P.E. classes into a cramped basement room at the school.
Last fall, we set out to change one small part of that reality, developing plans for the small sports complex and setting a ground-breaking date in early spring. The facility to be built on the neglected lot next to the "Monument" will include a basketball and volleyball court, gymnastics equipment, a sandpit for long jump, a small gravel track and a grass mini-soccer field, all of it fenced to keep out animals.
The project will be a true community undertaking. In developing our plan, we've brought together the mayor's office, the school, the school parents association, and members of the student body. We're working on our first fundraiser at school right now, and all the labor once we begin building will be performed by village residents.
In all, the community contribution will cover at least 40 percent of the project's total costs of approximately $8,000. By involving community members, we hope to create a sense of collective ownership, ensuring the proper use andcare of the facility in the years to come, and send the message that if the community truly desires to solve a problem it can do so by making use primarily of local resources.
The reality, though, is that with money stretched so thin here, the project won't happen without outside help, so last fall I set out on what I figured would be an onerous few months of fundraising. But almost as soon as I began contacting people, the idea of a community effort began to take on a new sense, the penny of love you put out into the world coming back tenfold, like our kindergarten teachers told us it would.
I heard from neighbors, members of my parents' church, and the parents of childhood friends. From work colleagues and former coaches, college teammates and returned Peace Corps volunteers.
People with six and seven-figure incomes offered to pitch in; so did people for whom money is hard to come by as the economic crisis worsens.
"I'm poor right now," wrote Rachel, a former University of Colorado classmate, with whom I used to study and eat dollar tacos on Mondays in Boulder, "but I would love to help your project! Hopefully I have a job by the time it takes off!"
Virginia, my 93-year-old neighbor, who used to sneak me Oreos when I was little, and paid me exorbitantly to cut her lawn in high school, and her daughter, Martha, offered to help. My sister, Liisa, raised nearly $300 in donations, giving away fruit from the persimmon tree in her front yard.
And then, in the last two weeks, came the most touching moments of this every-dollar-counts effort.
Jani Selven, who teaches third-graders at Crest Drive Elementary in Eugene, Ore., emailed to say she had showed her students the YouTube clips I had made with my club members to promote the project.
"My kids were simultaneously fascinated, stunned (by the condition of your kids' P.E. basement) and moved to help," Selven wrote. "I had a hunch that they would react, but I wasn't sure how much their third-grade minds would take in."
More than either of us could have imagined.
Later in the week Selven wrote again.
As soon as school started the next day, Selven's students began approaching her with their contributions, many having set about holding their own "personal fundraisers."
Kaelin donated $10 she made washing the family cars and doing extra chores around the house. Carmen made a scarf "for Moldova" and contributed the $5 for which she sold it. Ali presented Selven a Ziploc bag filled with $20 in change she earned going door-to-door in her cul-de-sac selling lemons her aunt sent her from California. Other students brought in their Hannukah, birthday and Christmas money to give to our project.
"It made my eyes all watery," Selven wrote.