SKOPJE, Macedonia — Roma children commonly watch from the public school yard as their classmates purchase snacks during the lunch hour. Many of the Roma children will wait several more hours for their single meal of the day — mainly bread, most likely.
The Roma are among the poorest people in Europe. In Macedonia, the unemployment rate among the nearly 200,000 Roma is around 80 percent. Children from these families commonly suffer from malnutrition, evident in anemia, hair loss, loss of skin color, an increasing occurrence of tuberculosis; lack of concentration and attention span; and decreased retention of material. Bread, which is both inexpensive and filling, makes up the bulk of their diet but does not provide the protein and many of the vitamins the children need.
A lunch program supported by Southern Baptists through their World Hunger Fund helps fill the rumbling stomachs of nearly 400 Roma schoolchildren each day.
The meal program, modeled on the Headstart program in the United States, was identified as a way to counter the effects of hunger on the children. Through the initiative, conducted in partnership with Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization, 400 Roma schoolchildren are provided three meals a week, consisting of milk, an egg, bread and chocolate-covered raisins or peanuts.
The lunches are served in two education centers that help prepare Roma children for school and assist them with homework once they begin school. One center serves about 300 children daily in Topana, the oldest Roma community in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje. The other center, located in Shutka, the largest of Skopje’s Roma communities, hosts 75 to 100 children a day.
Field partners working with the project will be able to literally measure the program’s impact.
“One of the things we are doing in conjunction with this project is compiling statistics of various physical measurements — height, weight, arm measurements, general physical health — as well as looking at scholastic results,” project director Betty Easter said. The measurements were taken at the start of the project in March, again in June and in September, and also will be taken at the end of the meal program. A report detailing the impact of the project will be written from those measurements.
Emily Harrison, who also helps with the project, said some Roma children initially resisted the meal.
“It took a little while for the children to warm up to us,” Harrison said. “There were many days in the beginning where the more prideful ones refused to eat. But after some time, they began to show a little more gratitude and desire to be there.”
Harrison said Igber, an older woman from the community, helped facilitate a friendlier relationship between the Roma children and the field partners involved in the project. Igber played music for the children and encouraged them to dance before the meal, and her storytelling kept the children quiet as they ate.
The meals have opened up relationships that extend into the larger Roma community.
“I love serving these kids,” Harrison said. “My favorite job is handing them their dessert on the way out. Usually it’s a piece of fruit, but getting to look each one in the face and say ‘Bye’ or ‘Have a great day’ or ‘See you later’ is so fun.
“After about a month of it last semester, I started to notice the kids would look me in the face right back…. Now it has grown to be where they will yell my name and chase me down in the street to say ‘Hi.’ Oftentimes when I am stopped, talking to a child or two, their parent will cross our path and invite me into their home.”
The initiative is an excellent example of the way Southern Baptist gifts to their World Hunger Fund open the door for disadvantaged children to discover lives of meaning and purpose, said Jim Brown, U.S. director for Baptist Global response.
“Through ministries like this meal program, children in need experience the love of God for themselves — because people who care are willing to give,” Brown said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Lucas is a collegiate correspondent for Baptist Global Response, on the web at www.gobgr.org. For information on how you can promote the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund in your church, visit worldhungerfund.org.)