Laura Sheahen is an information officer for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international humanitarian agency of the US Catholic Community. She recently returned from a trip to Moldova, a country in Eastern Europe that is struggling with poverty. According to Catholic Relief Services, economic collapses "as devastating as America's Great Depression of the 1920s" have struck Moldova since it declared independence from the Soviet Union.
Children have been especially impacted by the harsh economic conditions in the country. While in Moldova, Laura witnessed the heroic efforts of Sister Maria Tolledo, who runs a day care/school center. At the center, needy children are provided meals and an education. Laura discusses Sister Maria's programs and how similar initiatives need to reach more children in Moldova.
How many children receive meals at the Day Care/School run by Sister Maria Tolledo?
Right now, 34 Moldovan children receive breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack. About 20 more children come after school (at about 2 pm), and they receive lunch once a day.
What is the effect of the meals terms of the childrens' nutrition level and performance in class?
Many of the children are from very poor families, so food is definitely an incentive for the kids to come to Sister Maria's. When I saw the children eating breakfast, I was struck by how many of them really scraped their bowls clean, getting every bit of food. It's not at all certain they are getting enough nutritious food at home. The food makes a big difference in their ability to concentrate on the subjects they're taught there, like Romanian, mathematics, and English.
How are the school meals and the day care/school center funded?
Sister Maria’s center is funded by her religious order, the Sisters of Saint John the Baptist.
Talk in a broader sense about school feeding in general in Moldova. Do all needy children have access to services such as those run by Sister Maria Tolledo?
Moldova is a small Eastern European country, a former Soviet republic whose economy collapsed when the USSR did. It's now one of the poorest countries in Europe, and unemployment is rampant. A lot of parents leave young children with their grandparents and go abroad to countries like Russia to find work. Sometimes the grandparents or other relatives aren't able to take care of them.
So there are a lot of "social orphans," children whose parents are alive but who are pretty much on their own a lot. They're not always looked after properly in terms of food and clothing, and they don't always want to go to school very much — unless they can get food there.
Especially in rural villages, money for food is very tight. Sister Maria's center is unusual in offering the amount of food it does.
The worst-case scenario for impoverished children in Moldova isn't just going hungry, which would be bad enough. Sometimes vulnerable children are targeted by human traffickers who basically abduct them, take them to another country, and force them to beg. The trafficker keeps the money. An anti-trafficking group called La Strada told me about a four-year-old Moldovan boy who was trafficked into begging in Poland. The risks for these children are really high.
So there are tens of thousands of needy children in Moldova, and things would really turn around if they all had access to a safe place to eat, learn and play like Sister Maria's.
How can someone help out Sister Maria Tolledo's Day Care Center or other programs in Moldova?
To help Sister Maria, people can contribute to the Sisters of Saint John the Baptist, PO Box 711, Gladstone, NJ 07934 and specify "Balti, Moldova." Also, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the International Organization for Migration, and other groups are working to stop human trafficking or provide job options for poor people in Moldova. People can contribute to CRS at their website.