His name is Petru, and when I met him, he was terrified.
All his friends had new rain boots — bright reds, blues and yellows against a dusty brown road — and he coveted a pair. He waited, watching his friends draw butterflies and muscle men and hoping someone would notice he was the only boy still wearing tattered, worn-out plastic sandals. I saw him as he built the courage to pull one of the boys aside and ask what he had to do to deserve a pair of his own.
“Where are your boots?” I asked. Petru shrugged and turned away. I’m probably the first American who has spoken to him directly in his native tongue, Romanian, so I asked again in case he didn’t understand.
“He doesn’t have any,” another boy chimed in. “Can you get him some?”
“I’m not in charge,” I said, “Go inside the school and ask.”
Petru jumped backwards, shaking his head and looking at the ground, down at his dust-covered slip-ons.
“He’s afraid!” his friends shrieked.
As the boys’ laughter rang out, I knelt down to look Petru in the eye. He reminded me of my brother Ben, the math genius who’d rather not eat than ask a restaurant hostess for a table.
“I’ll help you,” I told him. He nodded.
Inside the tiny room this village used as a primary school, I asked the social worker helping us give out boots if Petru could still have a pair. She began waving at my hips, and I turned to see Petru had followed me, hovering near the door. The last time I saw him, he was a blur of brown and pale green, hurling happily toward the pile of rain boots in the back of the room.
This story really starts last winter, when my mother bought me my own pair of rain boots for Christmas. I’m a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries nestled between Romania and Ukraine, and I teach health in a rural village of about 2,000 people. When it rains or the snows melt, the roads are unmanageable without a strong pair of waterproof boots. In six months, I’d already ripped the pair I’d brought.
My mom bought my new boots from a Dallas-based company, Roma Provisions, which gives a needy Roma, or “gypsy,” child one pair of boots for each pair they sell. Mom’s a writer too, so she put up a blog post, encouraging others to by their own Roma Boots for Christmas.
When Roma Provisions’ founder Samuel Bistrian read my mom’s post, he emailed her to say thanks. “My mother is from the Moldovian region of Romania, which borders modern-day Moldova,” he wrote. “I would like to see about distributing some boots there as well.”
Seven months and a customs battle later, Samuel and I joined a dozen of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers to distribute brand-new rain boots in bright jewel colors to the children of Schinoasa, Moldova, a predominantly-Roma village of about 300 people.
As the other volunteers set up in the only building we could find — a tiny schoolroom that used to house 1st-4th graders — I walked through the crowd of curious Moldovans gathering outside, introducing myself as Eliza, my faux-Romanian translation of “Lindsay.”
In typical Moldovan fashion, everyone had three questions for me: How can you speak my language? Aren’t you hot? and Are you married? But I was ready with the answers. I learned their language so I could teach health to 5th-11th graders in my village, I told them. Besides, when you have to learn a language in order to eat, it’s not hard to find motivation. I was hot, but that’s because I was wearing my Roma Boots on a warm summer day. My mom bought these boots, I told them, so that one of the children here will get a pair for free. And no, I am not married, but I have a boyfriend. They seemed most interested in this last bit of news. Later, I learned the children in this village are very dedicated to school — even walking for miles in mud and snow without proper shoes — until junior high, when they start to get married and have families of their own.
We spent the entire day in Schinoasa. We used extra plastic bags to make a soccer ball for the kids. Older men in the village explained to Samuel how Moldova’s Soviet history makes it different from his native Moldova. We sat in the shade with them, listening to their stories and playing with their children.
Petru wouldn’t let me take his picture, but he and his friends drew a poster for me as a thank you present. Hearts with “Eliza Love” and “Sunteți Bun! (You are good!)” surround two intricate sketches of shirtless men with bulging muscles. I wanted to take it home with me, maybe hang it on my wall when II move back to the States, but another Peace Corps volunteer convinced me to leave the paper with them so they could keep drawing. Before I left, I ripped a little corner of the drawing, the corner that says “Eliza Love,” and stuck it in my purse.
I’ll keep it with me always.
Get your own pair of Roma Boots and fund a new pair for a child in need at Shop.RomaProvisions.com.