How a Romanian NGO is helping vulnerable children continue their education online and marginalized people turn their life around
With schools closed throughout Romania due to the coronavirus pandemic, the classes have moved online. A big and sudden change for many children from vulnerable groups who can’t afford laptops or smartphones. But a local NGO who works with people from vulnerable groups has been helping children have access to online education even in these troubled times, while also aiding marginalized people to turn their life around.
We've talked to Damien Thiery, the managing director of Ateliere fară Frontiere NGO, about their extra contribution during the pandemic, and about how they make an impact in the society through their programs: collecting and recycling or restoring electronic equipment, upcycling advertising banners and a bio farm - one of the first urban agriculture projects in Bucharest.
Ateliere Fără Frontiere - AFF (Workshops Without Borders), a Romanian NGO established more than ten years ago, creates jobs for people coming from vulnerable groups (addiction, violence, homelessness, or Roma) and provides social services that consist of job coaching, financial counseling, access to education, and mental health. The organization is running three workshops - reconect, remesh, and the bio&co farm - all of them designed based on the social entrepreneurship set of principles.
Within the reconect workshop, the teams collect waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) either to recycle it, thereby protecting the environment, or to recondition it, allowing the distribution of reconditioned computer equipment in schools throughout Romania through the EDUCLICK computer donation platform, AFF managing director Damien Thiery (opening photo) explained for Romania-insider.com. Since 2008, 16,000 computers have been donated to nearly 2,500 different schools in Romania.
The NGO is collecting electrical waste from companies, including computers, phones, or printers. But, as many would expect, the crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic also affected the organization’s work.
“Our WEEE collection has been extremely reduced since most businesses work from home,” Damien Thiery said. “A big share of private companies’ sponsorships has been redirected towards health due to the COVID-19 crisis. This is perfectly understandable, but it will unfortunately be to the detriment of associations activating in the social and educational fields. If no public help comes to sustain these associations - such as Ateliere Fără Frontiere -, there is a high risk that the actions that we carry out and that are often done by the States in other countries will stop.”
However, the NGO’s computer donation program continued even in these troubled times. “In the meantime, our donation program to schools and children-in-need is now proving to be one of the solutions to the lack of computers for online education in Romania. So a lot of companies have been making special efforts so that we can collect their IT waste even during the crisis,” the organization’s managing director explained.
Recently, Ateliere Fără Frontiere donated 70 refurbished computers, facilitating access to education for children from eight localities in the counties of Iasi, Brasov, Ilfov, Dolj, and Ialomita. In fact, the NGO made several other such donations since the coronavirus pandemic started, helping vulnerable children keep up with the school classes.
As for the other two workshops run by the NGO, they also continued their work in this period.
For example, in the remesh workshop, marginalized and excluded people have been upcycling advertising banners into eco-friendly, ethical bags, wallets, pouches, and many other colorful and sturdy items that companies can order for their events, consumer promo campaigns or conferences.
“Just like in reconect’s case, all the activities in the workshop were designed with a clear goal in mind: help those in the work integration program develop new skills, rebuild their self-confidence, and their trust in others,” Damien Thiery said.
As for bio&co, this is a social and pedagogical farm that produces organically certified vegetables and reduces waste and pollution. Vegetables are distributed in baskets directly to the consumers. It is one of the first projects of urban agriculture in Bucharest.
“People are at the heart of all our actions: our beneficiaries receive the personalized counseling and training they need to make a positive entry on the conventional labor market at the end of the assisted employment program,” the managing director explained.
Talking about the organization’s plans for this year, when the coronavirus pandemic has affected most economic sectors, Damien Thiery said that Ateliere Fără Frontiere’s goal remains to increase the number of beneficiaries entering the three workshops. “We are also keeping an eye on the possibility of starting additional profitable activities, products, or services, which are highly labor-intensive and have a positive environmental impact.”
Damien Thiery moved to Romania in 2008 and joined Ateliere Fără Frontiere as managing director last fall, after working for many years in the private sector in France, in the UK and Romania. Explaining this significant professional change, he said: “As everyone can see, a new world is emerging, that is focused on respecting others and protecting the planet. I wish to be an actor in this new world. Ateliere Fără Frontiere is a social and solidarity economy company that carries these ideas at its heart.”
A husband and father of three, he still enjoys everything Romania has to offer: “My opinion about Romania has not been altered over time: I love it, and I will not move anywhere else!”
Since the end of 2019, Ateliere Fără Frontiere has been affiliated to the Groupe SOS, one of Europe’s foremost social and societal undertakings. This affiliation aims to consolidate Ateliere Fără Frontiere’s activities and to facilitate its change of scale in the medium term.
There are many ways in which both companies and individuals can help Ateliere Fără Frontiere continue its work. For example, companies can give their electrical waste (computers, phones, printers, micro-wave, air-conditioning unit, etc.) to the NGO, so they can recycle or recondition it, or review the remesh catalog to order sustainable and socially responsible products. Individuals can redirect 3.5% of their taxes to Ateliere Fără Frontiere.
(Photo source: courtesy of Damien Thiery)