Mashed potatoes with hot dog & love: How an American woman helps kids in Bucharest’s poorest neighborhood

It’s mid-October, and the library room of Ruth School, located in Bucharest’s poorest neighborhood Ferentari, is much more crowded than usual. First and second graders are supposed to listen to adults reading them stories, for the Read Across the Globe event, but kids are moving on their chairs, peeking at their peers, at the photo cameras.

Brittany Garton, a young American woman with curly hair and witty eyes, has no problem, however, in getting kids’ attention, while she reads in Romanian the story of Lightning McQueen, the faster-than-fast and quicker-than-quick racecar. But she’s not only reading. She’s constantly interacting with the kids. She’s making funny voices, but her tone is also a bit severe, like, “Kids, I love you, but watch out.” They know each other pretty well. Brittany is the American who lives at the Ruth school, whom the kids always hug, but also the one who constantly asks them about their homework, or about coming to school.

“Why do you think this car wins?” she asks.

“Because he is the fastest one,” kids answer.

“Who says he’s the fastest one? Himself or the others?”

“He says it!”

“Well, if I say I’m ‘smecher’, am I really ‘smecher’, or it’s just something I believe about myself?”

Smecher’, which means cool in Romanian, is a powerful world in the poverty-ridden Ferentari neighborhood. It refers to somebody who knows how to get out of trouble and who can’t be tricked. Brittany feels at home in this part of the capital, which is avoided by most people living in Bucharest, due to its bad reputation for drugs and crime. She has been living here for four years, working as a project manager at Ruth School, a private institution for poor kids in the area, funded by Brits and Americans. But she started coming to Romania when she was 13, on a church program, together with her parents. She can’t even remember how her life looked like before Romania, because this country has always been part of her life.


Brittany comes from a very small town in Virginia, with 3,000 people. “The population in some of these apartment buildings is bigger than the population in my town,” she says. “We don’t even have a stop light. It’s definitely been a transition, but I’ve kind of just hit the ground running.”

“I was a pretty obnoxious kid,” she describes herself. “When I was in high school I raised 5,000 dollars for the preschool program in Romania. All my classmates and my parents were like ‘I hate you so much!”

Now she literally lives where she works.” She has a room inside the school, so in less than one minute she’s at the “office”.

The Ruth school is located on a narrow street in Ferentari called Lacul Bucura. There are many small houses around, and it almost looks like a village, but some tens of meters away you notice the big apartment blocks. Straight across the Ruth school there is another school, which is state-run, so there are always many kids around the area.

Brittany is part of the neighborhood, at least of the community that surrounds the school, and everybody knows the American woman. When she walks around and bumps into a group of teenagers that look a little sketchy, there is always at least a kid who came to school and always gives her a little head nod. It’s not cool to acknowledge that they actually know the “teacher”. When she goes to the grocery store, the old man who works there keeps asking her when the school starts because he wants to enroll his granddaughter. She has never been to school, although she’s nine.

Education is a big problem in Ferentari, home to a higher Roma population than anywhere in the city. Kids don’t enroll in school. If they do, the dropout rate is very high. Education isn’t valued very much in the Roma community, Brittany says. It’s also strongly related to poverty. Kids will not attend school, if they don’t have money for school supplies or if they are hungry, she explains.

A Baptist church started Project Ruth in 1992, after discovering that many children in Ferentari couldn’t read and couldn’t afford to go school. They were the kids that everybody forgot about, Brittany explains. The project now includes a school for 232 children kids in the 0-8 grades, accredited by the Education Ministry, a pre-school center, an after-school program, a health center. Kids have lunch at school every day, and at the beginning of the year they receive school supplies: textbooks, pencils, notebooks. The teachers make sure that the little ones brush their teeth at school in the morning. High schoolers can attend a tutoring program on Saturdays, where teachers help them with math or Romanian or other subjects.

Brittany - Ruth Center in Ferentari

“There is one kid that stole my heart,” says Brittany. She met Robert when she first came to Romania in 2004. The 13-year old Brittany held the infant in her arms. Seven years later, Brittany moved to Romania and the boy started first grade at Ruth school.

He came to school every day until November when he stopped attending classes. Brittany would go to his house, telling him that he’s got to come to school, but he was like “I can’t come to school today, I can’t come to school today.” It went like this for three or four months. She would knock on his door, and he’d be like “I can’t come to school today”. She would reply every time “No, you’re a seven-year-old, your only job is to come to school!”

She was very upset about it, because she felt like she wasn’t going to make any difference, and nothing will happen. Robert’s older brother had also dropped out of school.

Then one day in January, Brittany got a call from her pastor, who told her that the boy’s mother just died.

“I went to his house the next day and he said ‘Brittany, my mom died. Can I come back to school now?’ His mom had terminal cancer and his dad was a garbage cleaner and had to work every day. His older brother was medicating his grief with medicines and alcohol and the seven-year-old was taking care of his dying mom.”

Robert is now back to school, and he’s doing great, Brittany says. Kids are sometimes mean, and when they make trinkets (martisoare) for Mother’s Day, they tell him that he doesn’t have a mommy. But he replies: “I have two mommies. One lives in heaven with Jesus and one is Brittany.”

“He’s my baby, and he knows it,” Brittany says.

Brittany ruth

When students graduate from the eighth grade, teachers organize a ceremony for them with caps, gowns, pictures. “They made it to the eighth grade, and that’s a huge thing,” Brittany says.

The abuse rate among these kids is high, she explains. There are at least two kids whose mothers were victims of human trafficking. They got into counseling, as Ruth Project also has a counseling center for women. Some of the kids enrolled in school live in orphanages, some of them are sent to beg.

Brittany tries to organize meetings with parents, where she invites speakers. She sends the parents notes, saying that “we’re having a pizza party today and we’re discussing this”. “Sometimes it’s obvious that they come for the pizza, but sometimes you see them processing. But these people are barely making ends meet with their needs. You can’t go into educational philosophy. But I want to think that parents want to make the best out of their children but they don’t always know how.”

Brittany - Ruth Center in Ferentari

“I don’t think I’ll move back to the US anytime soon,” Brittany says. She can’t imaging packing her things and leaving.  “At home it’s cozy, I have a car, life is easier, but it’s not the life I’m meant to live. I walk 20 minutes to the market but that’s life…this is the life we live.”

But she doesn’t dive for too long into regrets, it’s not her thing. “Do you know which is the kids’ favorite meal? Mashed potatoes with hot dog on top.”

By Diana Mesesan, features writer, [email protected]

(photos by Diana Mesesan)