A northeastern teacher and family camp for underprivileged children in native Transylvania

A trip to Transylvania last summer left Northeast professor Albert-László Barabási “humbled”, but eager to go back and start all over again.

It wasn’t his first visit to the region of Romania known to many around the world as the mysterious homeland of Count Dracula, the vampire antagonist in Bram Stoker’s horror novel.

Barabási, the Robert Gray Dodge professor of network science and a prominent university professor of physics at Northeastern, grew up among the descendants of Hungarian settlers in Transylvania where Hungarians, Romanians, Roma, Germans and other minorities coexist.

This summer, Barabási and her family traveled to the predominantly Hungarian village of Gyergyószárhegy in eastern Transylvania to spend a week with underprivileged and orphaned children living in foster care.

“It was a very humbling experience,” says Barabási. “We thought we were giving, but we received a lot more.”

Many years ago, the couple heard about the Saint Francis Foundation, which has been helping socially disadvantaged children from the poorest families and orphans in Transylvania since 1993.

The foundation was established by a Hungarian-Romanian Franciscan monk, Csaba Böjte. It currently cares for approximately 2,800 children, who live in small groups with an adult guardian in 82 foster homes.

Barabási and his wife Janet Kelley, a professor of world literature and the arts of writing at Brookline High School, have donated clothing and money to the organization for years, and visited several foster homes. during their travels in Transylvania. When Böjte visited Boston once, Barabási held a fundraiser for the Saint Francis Foundation at his house.

Last summer, Barabási and Kelley asked the organization how they could help most effectively. The answer was that children are usually busy going to school, but in the summer they are bored because there are no programs for them and they have nothing to do.

The couple decided to organize a summer camp. The goal was to get the kids involved in activities that wouldn’t normally be available to them, teach them some English and introduce them to certain aspects of American culture, Barabási says.

He also says that attending the camp was part of his journey to give back to the region he comes from and the people who created the environment that allowed him to become a successful scientist.

For Kelley, as an American, the camp was an opportunity to meet people very different from her, but also to “show up for these kids” and see what impact she could have on them.

The couple also wanted to engage their sons, who are now 14 and 13 and speak Hungarian, in the local community and instill in them the culture of giving, Barabási says.

Since this was their first time running a camp, it was limited to 15 children between the ages of 9 and 15.

“They were very, very excited and very open to being a part of this,” Barabási said.

The Saint Francis Foundation arranged housing on one of their properties, as well as meals and transportation, and brought in adults who knew the children to serve as counsellors. Kelley and Barabási offered the lineup for a week and paid for related expenses such as custom printed t-shirts, craft supplies, and pizza.

The campers engaged in a different activity each day: they made collages of themselves in order to get to know each other; went out into the village to eat ice cream; visited a horse farm; went to a spa to swim in an indoor pool; and hiked a beautiful but difficult mountain, Kelley said.

Some of the American staples they learned about include peanut butter sandwiches, the movie “An American Tail” and how to make s’mores over a campfire because people in Transylvania use them. mainly for cooking meat, says Barabási. Kelley also taught them some English.

At the end of the week, a few brave kids entered the X-factor style talent show, judged by Barabási himself.

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