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Creative and Performing Arts in Romania – Jordan Rolfes

My decision to volunteer in Romania

A staff member in the classroom with children

Ever since I was a little kid, reading things like Dr. Sue ss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go! and playing games like Street Fighter (I know that sounds odd, but I loved how all of the stages were real countries),I realized that, whatever I did in my life, it simply had to involve travel. It wasn’t until high school that I actually lived out this dream and started going on organised tours. Eventually, though, I felt like I was called to do something greater, something that could positively impact the areas that I was visiting. It was then that I discovered volunteer travel, and ultimately, Projects Abroad. I have been a returning volunteer with Projects Abroad since 2012, and my most recent trip to Romania has been the wake-up call that I have so desperately needed in my life.

My choice to go to Romania was, believe it or not, based off one of the country’s most celebrated composers, Nicolae Bretan. I heard his opera Golem, and as the dramatic motifs blared through my speakers, I realized that I must visit the land that brought such amazing and creative talent. When I found that Projects Abroad offered drama placements in Romania, a task that perfectly correlated with my college degree, it was clear that a Romanian adventure was truly my destiny for the August of 2016.

After I filled out my application, I was informed that the traditional drama placements were not in session for my selected time, but the in-country staff was putting together a special session that I could do for the off-season. I was thrilled with this prospect: I was going to be given a project where I had total control.

My arrival in Romania

Students dress up for their drama recital

I arrived in Romania after doing a week-long tour of Serbia, which is also a must-see destination for any prospective Eastern Europe traveller. I was already in Brasov for the start of my project, so I simply asked to be picked up at the Hotel Casa Wagner on a Sunday morning. A young, charismatic man greeted me and informed me he was one of the office staff members at Projects Abroad. He hailed us a taxi (because he didn’t want me to struggle with my luggage) and we went the few blocks to my host family.

My host family

Projects Abroad volunteers typically stay with local host families. This is always such an amazing aspect of the journey: you really live like a local. I can honestly say that I have lived in Fiji, Bolivia, Morocco and Romania. My hosts in Romania were absolutely stunning. They were an older couple with a two-building complex. The lady of the house, Atena, was a fantastic cook who always made sure that us volunteers had everything we needed. The gentleman of the house, Losef, unfortunately had some health problems during my stay, but you would never know it to see his energetic interactions with the volunteers and the other guests of the family. Of course, we did not speak the same language (I will not call it a "barrier" as such a concept did not exist with this family), but to be honest, that really didn’t matter. Energy, friendship and hospitality communicate in their own way, a way that words could never achieve.

My placements

Volunteer exploring Romania in his free time

On my first day of volunteering, a staff member explained to me that I would have two placements. The first was a foster home, located two bus rides away in the village of Prejmer. The second placement was a special session with two high school students who wanted to learn about video writing and production. We started out with visiting the first placement.

When we arrived, we met another staff member of the Projects Abroad team, and she led us to the foundation. As I walked through the door, I will admit that I froze in total shock. The average age was seven years old, the oldest student in the home was only 14: and my lesson plans involved complex details about character creation and psychology. I was stunned; I couldn’t effectively do anything that I had planned. Just when it seemed like I made a huge misstep coming in August, I felt a number of the kids tugging at my clothes. They all wanted to show me what they were doing: one boy, Robbie, wanted me to teach him the piano, a girl, Livia, wanted me to play soccer with her. Then there was Georgiana, a girl of only four years, who was brought into the home from the street, no parents to be found. All she ever wanted, it seemed, was a hand to hold. It became clear to me that the kids at this placement really needed a friend and a role model, and I was honoured to fill that position. The director of the foundation also asked me to create a promotional video for the home, and for me, any placement that lets me do video work is perfect.

The second placement was a result of the staff member’s amazing networking and initiative: she contacted an English teacher, Noemi, to see if any of her students were interested in learning about video production. Two young ladies, Stefi and Timi, signed up, unsure of what my workshop would be. Stefi seemed open minded during our first session, but Timi spent much of the time with her arms crossed, looking away. Stefi seemed captivated during the whole process. As the workshop went on, Timi started to participate more. She was certainly warming up to my methods (mainly, character creation… you can’t have good videos without good characters). Noemi even mentioned that she never saw her work so hard. We made a short commercial showcasing hand-made jewellery from Noemi’s mother, and both Stefi and Timi created the entire concept and theme. By the end of the session, Timi mentioned that this was an amazing experience, and Stefi agreed wholeheartedly.

Travelling around Romania

Strolling through the city of Brașov is truly like gliding through a fairy tale. The city centre is filled with passionate people, singing and dancing in the main square. The buildings truly make you feel like you are in another century, with incredible Renaissance-style statues gracing the tops of most edifices. The Carpathian Mountains crown this amazing city, providing it with a wonderfully verdant backdrop (even if Brașov has an equivalent of the "Hollywood" sign: this actually helps one gain their bearings).

During the weekends, Projects Abroad volunteers have the opportunity to do independent travel. I spent my first weekend in the city of Cluj-Napoca, a Hungarian-influenced town that is about seven hours by train away from Brașov. Cluj is home to some of the best architecture in the Balkans, as well as the "haunted" Hoia Baciu forest: I didn’t see any supernatural occurrences, but Hoia Baciu is still a spiritual and captivating place regardless. I spent my second weekend focusing on all of the great things that Brașov has to offer.

My overall experience

I was incredibly lucky to spend my time in Romania with a crew of amazing volunteers from all over the world. I truly felt like they were my family. They encouraged me and offered amazing advice on the video projects. They also gave me some tips on things that I need to improve in my life upon my return. That advice was seconded by the Projects Abroad staff: it made this trip the awakening that I needed to become excited about my life.

Romania is a fairy tale. I truly saw the creativity of Nicolae Bretan in the work that Stefi and Timi put in with their video project. I witnessed an incredible group of youngsters who are filled with inspiring dreams at the first placement. I was treated like a prince under the amazing hospitality of my host family. The Projects Abroad staff was behind me every step of the way to achieve amazing results at my placements. The other volunteers showed me that, yes, my best days are truly ahead of me. Looking back at all of my experiences in the amazing story of Romania, I can truly assert that I am living my happily ever after.

Jordan Rolfes

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