A trip to Transylvania this past summer left Northeastern professor Albert-László Barabási “humbled,” but eager to go back and do it all over again.
This wasn’t his first visit to the region of Romania that many around the world know as the mysterious homeland of Count Dracula, the vampire antagonist in Bram Stoker’s horror novel.
Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge professor of network science and a distinguished university professor of physics at Northeastern, grew up among descendants of Hungarian settlers in Transylvania where Hungarians, Romanians, Roma, German and other minorities co-exist together.
This summer, Barabási and his 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,” Barabási says. “We thought we were giving, but we received much more.”
Many years ago, the couple heard about the Saint Francis Foundation, which has been helping socially marginalized 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 about 2,800 children, who live in small groups with an adult caretaker in 82 foster homes.
Barabási and his wife Janet Kelley, a world literature and craft of writing teacher at Brookline High School, have been donating clothes and money to the organization for years, as well as visiting several foster homes during their travels to Transylvania. When Böjte visited Boston once, Barabási hosted a fundraiser for the Saint Francis Foundation in his home.
Last summer, Barabási and Kelley asked the organization how they could help in the most effective way. The response 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 engage children in activities that normally would not be available to them as well as to teach them some English and introduce them to some aspects of American culture, Barabási says.
He also says that participating in the camp was a part of his journey of giving back to the area where he is from and to the people who created the environment that allowed him to eventually become a successful scientist.
For Kelley, as an American, the camp was an opportunity to encounter people who are very different from her, but also “show up for these kids” and see what impact she could have on them.
The couple also wanted to engage their own children, who are now 14 and 13 years old and speak Hungarian, in the local community and instill in them the culture of giving, Barabási says.
Since this was their first time leading a camp, it was limited to 15 children between the ages of 9 and 15.
“They were very, very excited and very open to be part of this,” Barabási says.
The Saint Francis Foundation arranged housing on one of their properties, as well as meals and transportation, and brought in some adults who knew the kids to serve as counselors. Kelley and Barabási came up with the programming for a week and paid for related expenses such as custom-printed T-shirts, crafting supplies and pizza.
Campers engaged in a different activity every day: they crafted collages about themselves as a way to get to know each other; went out into the village to have ice cream; visited a horse farm; went to a thermal spa to swim in an indoor pool; and hiked a beautiful but challenging mountain, Kelley said.
A few of the American staples they got to experience were peanut butter sandwiches, “An American Tail” movie, and how to make s’mores on a campfire because in Transylvania people mostly use them for cooking meat, Barabási says. Kelley also taught them some basic English.
At the end of the week, a few brave children participated in the X-factor-style talent show, judged by Barabási himself.
“American kids are sort of trained to do group work and to speak in front of others and to be outgoing,” Kelley says. “They [children at the camp] are much quieter and more reserved, less likely to be goofy. It really was a stretch to ask them to do that, but ended up being so much fun.”
The young campers got a kick out of Kelley’s performance for the “X-factor.” She wrote a sentence about each of them and tried to speak in broken Hungarian, while the children laughed and corrected her.
“It was a really great experience,” Kelley says. “It was a magical week as we immersed ourselves in their world.”
Now, the couple plans to return to Transylvania with their children, who will be going through high school, every summer for the next four-five years, Kelley says. They have been analyzing how things went this time and making notes for the future, Barabási says.
“This was a trial year for us to see what works and what doesn’t, and how we could do better,” he says.
They are looking forward to taking better advantage of the local environment and local possibilities like visiting a big festival organized by ethnic Armenians, who migrated to the region in the 1600s, or a local Lázár castle built in the 15th and 16th century.
“We will be looking during the next year or so for other opportunities that you can meaningfully pack into this week without overpacking it,” Barabási says.