A family for the most vulnerable: FARA founder Jane Nicholson on 30 years in Romania and what matters in the foundation’s work
For the past three decades, FARA Foundation has worked with the vulnerable and disadvantaged in Romania, children, youth but also adults, aiming to offer "a family for those without" and care alternatives to the institutions of the state. As the foundation is celebrating its 30th anniversary, British Jane Nicholson, its founder, spoke to Romania-insider.com about how FARA has developed so far and what it plans to do next, how the pandemic impacted its activity, and what matters most in the charity's work.
Jane Nicholson never expected she would set up a charity in Romania. A trained nurse who headed a large healthcare charity in UK and Central and Eastern Europe, she was used to establishing centers and hospices. No stranger to the post-Communist world, she worked in Albania, Macedonia, and Poland. She arrived in Romania in 1991 wanting to help after seeing the images of children in local institutions shown around the world. When she was asked to come to Romania with a group of volunteers who were delivering aid, she did not hesitate and decided to go work directly in the institutions.
"A whole group of volunteers we got together, most of them delivered aid around in the Suceava area to institutions, but I took two-three nurses and worked directly in, and I have to say, even though I've been in a lot of other situations in these other countries, I have never seen anything like it in my life. People were naked, no food, the conditions were appalling. Having spent that time, it completely changed me, really. I thought 'I can't walk away from this. Something has to be done, even if it is in a small way.' […] That was the start, and later that year, we started the charity."
FARA Foundation (fără means without in Romanian) was established in the fall of 1991, with the mission to alleviate the suffering of the children abandoned in the country's state institutions. By 1997, after raising enough funds, it opened in Suceava the first home for children from the institutions, St. Nicholas.
"For several years, we worked with children in the institutions. But I realized this was not going to be the answer to make any change," she recalls. The children's home was built "to take children out of the institutions. The idea was to get a model of creating family care. I could see they were completely unloved, neglected. It wasn't exactly the fault of the parents; they couldn't do anything, they had to give them to the state, and also, children and adults with disabilities were not accepted in Romania. I saw a lot of disabilities, but we didn't start with disabilities."
Now, at St. Nicholas' Home in Suceava, a total of 15 beneficiaries receive annually ongoing care and specialized social assistance and psychological support to address their basic needs, but also access to various developmental opportunities. A year later, in 1998, FARA opened a second children's home, St. Gabriel's, in Bucharest.
"The success of that is that those children, some have gone to the university over the years. St. Nicholas' Home is still going, we have some that are working on our projects there. We had another home, St Gabriel's in Bucharest, and it's like a family, they're in touch with us all the time, so if there are any problems, we are their family later."
After the first homes for children, in 1999 the foundation started offering foster care for babies and children in both Suceava and Bucharest, specializing in those their families shunned because of their disabilities. A FARA kindergarten was also established in Bucharest to help children integrate into the local community.
In the decade that followed, FARA continuously developed its projects and reach, consistent with its mission of "transforming the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, youth and families living in Romania's poorest communities." From family-type homes to therapy and rehabilitation day centers, and shelter and preparation for independent living, it offered alternatives to the state's institutions. "I think we've helped over 10,000 since those early years to now. And on our program now we have 1,500 [e.n. 1,548 direct and indirect beneficiaries in 2020]," the FARA founder says.
Young adults were targeted with recovery centers, including an organic farm and training center for vulnerable young people in Suceava whose inauguration was attended by Prince Charles, one of the patrons of the foundation. "The Prince of Wales is our patron; it has been of great help because he is much loved in Romania. He's visited many of our programs and spoke to the president about us, and, of course, it has helped with the fundraising."
For adults with disabilities coming from state institutions who need lifetime care and support but have no one to provide it, the foundation runs the Homes for Life program in Suceava (St. Mary Home, Vadu Moldovei, and Elisabeta Home, Cacica). Twenty beneficiaries receive residential care in a family-life environment.
"Most of the charities don't do care providing, it's too expensive, and we're getting to the stage where we need to raise more money in Romania, but we also will negotiate with the state to have a better funding for running of anything residential," she explains, pointing to FARA's mission "to always try to transform the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, children, youth and families, in the poorest communities. So all our programs are free to everybody."
Speaking of people with disabilities, she stresses the need for acceptance and integration. "We are going to look at day centers for adults with disabilities from families that are stuck because I can see from visiting many families that they have someone with disabilities just sitting there, but there is nothing they can do. We want to do day centers, and that's what we had in the UK; I was involved in those. It is a way of integrating these people with disabilities; they have to have socializing and be accepted. So I think that's a very big push for the future. And that's expensive. […] These things with the disabilities were a shock to see, and I'm not easily shocked; I'm also a prison chaplain in a prison here [e.n. the UK] and I work with a lot of violent and mental health, so I'm used to those conditions, but I believe everybody needs acceptance and love, and that's not just airy-fairy love; you've got to provide a life that changes them for them to be transformed."
Another program, Therapy and Rehabilitation, targets the children and youth aged 1 to 16 years old with learning disabilities and complex needs and their families. It is a community-based therapy and rehabilitation program offering free-of-charge services in three therapy and rehabilitation day centers in Popești Leordeni (Rafael Centre), Fălticeni (St. Teresa Centre), and Suceava (Emanuel Centre). The program aims to provide guidance and support to help families in fighting with the disability of their children. It is also designed to contribute to their social inclusion and the improvement of the children's well-being and quality of life. A total of 246 children and youth receive every year a wide range of services following customized intervention plans.
In addition, the Support for Independent Life program targets vulnerable and disadvantaged youth older than 14 who live in the child protection system or leaving care or coming from underprivileged families.
At the same time, Tackling Poverty through Education covers vulnerable and disadvantaged children of nursery and primary school age and their families living in poor communities. It is a community-based program designed to prevent school abandonment of marginalized children enrolled in primary school in six rural communities from Suceava county. This program provides children with free hot meals, specialized support, and material resources to help them progress well at school and ease their adaptation in primary school. Through it, a total of 288 children receive social assistance, psychological and specialized support for their education needs annually.
"One of our biggest programs now is Tackling Poverty through Education. It's in rural areas of Suceava county; we're in six villages. We work with schools there, we work to get children access to learning. We do around 300 hot meals a day for the poorest children, we provide educational materials and support, but there's so much more need for that." She mentions the statistics showing the high numbers of children living in poverty in Romania, a situation the foundation plans to work further to address. According to 2016 Eurostat data quoted by the foundation, in 2016, 49.2% of children in Romania were at risk of poverty or social exclusion.
FARA also runs transit centers for the youth (18 to 26 years old) who are leaving care and transitioning to independent living, and has helped so far 135 care leavers who were not ready for independent living.
After the foundation was established, a charity shop chain was set up in the UK to help fund the activity in Romania. The first FARA charity shop opened in London in 1992, the first in a network that now counts 41 shops in 27 London communities selling selected, donated items in many categories. The shops had to close during the pandemic, cutting the funding that would have come through, but the foundation is working on developing a larger online shop. "They're very successful charity shops; at the moment, we're building a much larger online shop. That will make a big difference but who knows that the local shops will be able to go back, some will but after all this time everything could change, the high street could change, everything is going very, very digital."
The restrictions brought on by the sanitary crisis also changed the way the foundation delivers its services. From moving therapy sessions only to purchasing laptops and delivering packages, many aspects were adapted.
"The children with disabilities in daycare with therapy, they couldn't come. We did online therapy with the parents; we bought several hundred laptops for them, so we did all those online. For the Tackling Poverty [e.n. program] our staff took the education materials and worked to the village because the schools were closed; then we gave food packages every day, we couldn't do the hot meals because you couldn't serve it. So there was still a lot of work to do," she explains.
Having worked for so long in the northeastern part of the country, one of the poorest, she points to the need to break the cycle of poverty. There are other issues the foundation is focused on, including campaigning for change for the discriminated groups or access to education, looking at the number of children who leave school after primary school. "We are full members of Eurochild [e.n. a network of organizations and individuals working with and for children in Europe]. We will be campaigning for the rights of the child and also on disability discrimination of children and adults with disabilities."
But outside the foundation's work and targets, what matters, she says, is how the people are cared for.
"What counts is not how much we achieve, but how much they receive love, that's the main thing, because that's what they were denied all these years in the institutions and to see such changes in people it's wonderful, really," she says. "I'm very happy I worked all these years, I'm passionate about Romania, Romanians and I just love very much all the children and people we have. I operate out of strong faith, I belong to an order, so for me it's been a great privilege to come and continue as long as I can."
The foundation is celebrating its thirty years in 2021, and it will launch an appeal for a child and family center, another model of how it is expanding into the community. "We're going to have an appeal this year for a child and family center so we can do much more with workshops and young people and training because jobs are impossible as well."
It is also looking to engage the Romanian supporters, individuals, and corporate, more. Many of the plans depend on access to funding. "Depending on the access to funding, our strategy will be to develop all these into the community to work a lot with poverty in the community and with disabilities. And then, the later stage, in the years to come, the Government can take on the possibility of funding the residential cause they're the ones that are too expensive."
Nicholson, who has been visiting Romania regularly for the past 30 years, hopes to be able to return in May, after a pandemic-induced break. "I know the beautiful Romanian countryside. [..] I absolutely love the area in the Suceava district where the monasteries are. We have a house in Cacica, which is a little shrine village in the mountains, our children come on holiday there, and when I'm there, they come and stay, and we celebrate. I love it there, I'm usually staying there. I love Romania's beautiful parts. Maramureș is absolutely beautiful." Brasov and the surrounding areas also have a special place. Actress Nicole Kidman, who filmed for Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain in the area in 2003, was one of FARA's patrons. "I went to the film with her to take the children," she recalls.
In 2013, Jane Nicholson was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her charitable work in Romania, a recognition of her decades-long service. Looking back on her experience in Poland, Albania, or Macedonia, she says she has never seen anything as difficult as Romania but that it is also important to recognize the suffering that was before 1989. And contribute in any way possible.
"We strive to build a just society based on Christian values, love, justice, religion, respect, welcoming everybody; the fact is we're very strong on living out our values wherever we are, we work with everybody. We've always worked closely with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The message is about recognizing the gap between the rich and the poor and being able to contribute in any way anybody can, however small."
(Photo courtesy of FARA Foundation)