Three years ago, at the age of 48, Leslie Hawke had one great source of pride: her actor son Ethan, married to actress Uma Thurman and a young father himself. Beyond that, Leslie—twice divorced, dissatisfied with a long—running romance and bored with her job as a Manhattan Internet publishing executive-felt she didn’t have much to brag about. Then, on the morning of July 17,1999, news of the tragic plane crash in which John F. Kennedy Jr. died prompted her to take stock of her situation, and the idea of the Peace Corps popped into her head. “I just wanted to get out of my life,” she says. “And that sounded like a good way to do it.”
Six months later she was on a flight to Romania as a volunteer, with little idea of what she was getting into. “One of our first discussions,” says her close friend Wendy Phillips Kahn, “was, ‘Is it Rumania or Romania?’ We didn’t even know.”
Today, Hawke can not only pronounce the name of the former communist nation—one of the poorest in Eastern Europe—she has dedicated her life to it. Living on her savings and her $180-a-month Peace Corps salary in the industrial city of Bacau (pop. 250,000), she is director of Ready, Willing & Able, a program that gets beggar children off the streets by providing training and jobs for their struggling mothers. “So many people talk about wanting to make some kind of dramatic change in life,” says Ethan, 31, who saw her operation firsthand during a visit in November 2000. “But she actually did it. Personally, I think she’s an inspiration.”
Hawke’s transformation began soon after her initial assignment to a local nonprofit group, the Community Support Foundation, when she noticed a barefoot boy, about 8 years old, across from her apartment. “He was all by himself,” she recalls, “begging at car windows on his tiptoes.” She brought him Oreos and a pair of sneakers and persuaded him to go with her to a children’s shelter. Once there, “he got the same look that American kids have the first time they walk into Disney World,” she says. But three days later the boy’s mother arrived and furiously accused the shelter staff of depriving her family of its livelihood: “How are the rest of my kids supposed to eat? There are lots of kids on the street. Go pick on someone else’s.”
A chastened Hawke soon learned that most of the city’s street kids, though illiterate and unschooled, were neither orphans nor homeless. Instead, in a country where the average income is about $1,500 a year—and demoralized fathers often abandon their families or fall prey to alcoholism—many such children are their family’s only source of cash. “They make more money than their parents, even if the parents can find a job,” says Hawke. The problem is most pervasive among Gypsies, the poorest of Romania’s minority groups. “Their status is about the same as that of blacks in the U.S. around 1950,” says Hawke. “There’s enormous discrimination. People are afraid to hire them.”
Hawke also learned that some of these child beggars eventually run away from home and wind up living in the subways and sewers of Bucharest, the capital, where they turn to glue sniffing and crime. A board member of the Manhattan-based Doe Fund, she decided to open a Bacau chapter of one of the charitable organization’s most successful programs: Ready, Willing & Able, which puts New York City’s homeless to work cleaning streets. It opened in September 2001 with $62,000 in seed money from the U.S. Agency for International Development as well as donations from corporations and her movie-star son.
Today, Hawke’s eight-person staff, aided by volunteers, offers mothers three-month training programs for jobs ranging from housecleaning to elder care, $75 monthly stipends and eventual apprenticeship placements. RWA also offers their children remedial classes in reading, writing and math. In addition, Hawke has founded a private school for middle-class kindergartners and first graders, the American Learning Center, which provides an alternative to local schools for $60 a month.
Among the program’s beneficiaries—50 children and 30 mothers—is Anica Borcea, 39, an illiterate former street cleaner who now works as a hygiene assistant, giving students (including four of her own eight children) showers when they arrive at a local public school. RWA “is doing a lot of good,” says Borcea, whose kids no longer need to panhandle. “My children are going to school now. I am happy.”
Despite RWA’s growing reputation, Hawke still has to work at recruiting clients, as she did on a May morning at a squalid Gypsy community on the outskirts of town. While children played in piles of garbage, Hawke visited the parents of 10-year-old habitual truant Elvis, whose parents were both unemployed. In the converted garage that is the family’s home, Hawke, using her rudimentary Romanian and a translator, told the couple about her services. As Hawke left, the boy’s mother kissed her hand in gratitude.
At Hawke’s next stop, Ionela Popa, 19, whose common-law husband was in jail—leaving her to care for her 3-year-old son—needed no persuading. “I’m young; I want to work,” she said. Hawke turned to the translator and replied, “Tell her we can get her something this summer.”
Tough challenges and faraway locales have long attracted Hawke, who grew up in Texas as the daughter of a local politician who became a county judge. “I always felt out of place,” she says. “From the time I can remember, I wanted to go someplace else.” In 1974 Hawke was divorced from her first husband (Ethan’s father), insurance actuary Jim Hawke, and in 1992 from her second, management consultant Patrick Powers. Four years later she settled in New York City and took a string of jobs in education, the nonprofit sector and Internet publishing before signing up for her Peace Corps stint.
Planning to stay in Romania indefinitely, Hawke keeps in touch with her family mainly by e-mail. “Ethan told me, ‘You don’t have to freeze over there, Mom,'” she says. “‘Let me know if you need extra heaters.'” For her first Christmas she was expecting a suitcase full of long Johns—and was surprised when daughter-in-law Uma sent a red Gucci cocktail dress instead. Reports Hawke, who wears the gown to local parties: “She said, ‘We don’t want you to lose touch with that side of yourself.'”
These days, though, Hawke’s gratification tends to come from simpler things, such as the weekly meeting of her client mothers, who gather to provide mutual support. Recently, Popa attended for the first time and got an earful of advice. “You have to follow the program, be patient and trust the group, like sisters,” said Floarea Chiperi, 42, a mother of 11. “And respect your job, whatever it is.”
The results, promised Maria Doloman, 50, would be worth the effort. A single mother of nine and former laborer in a shoe factory, Doloman now works as an orderly in a home for young mothers. “If you are sad, you will be happy,” she assured Popa. “Your life will change.”
Cathy Nolan in Bacau and Mary Green in New York City