Albania is not new for EMM worker Sonya Harnish. Although Sonya’s current term began in 2017, her initial exposure to Albania was in 1997 when she was part of a YES team in the country. Sonya would then go on to serve there as a long-term worker from 2000 to 2009. Unanticipated changes led Sonya to move from Korçë to Ersekë in 2019. Despite a season of uncertainty, Sonya was led to this new place and the ministries of Foleza and the House of Hope, which she relates to on an informal basis in the community where she currently serves.
Tucked into rugged mountains in a corner of Albania is the small town of Ersekë, where smoke billows above every apartment building, a signal of the warmth burning in homes. A different kind of warmth connects neighbors to each other in what some could perceive as a difficult place to live. Unemployment is high in Ersekë, and some people leave to find work and opportunity elsewhere. Nonetheless, the values of hospitality and friendship provide a certain rhythm to life, in which it is common to visit and share kindling for wood stoves.
From this warmth and neighborly care, the Foleza after-school program has been built, hosted in a local evangelical church building. Translated “little nest” from the Albanian language, Foleza provides more than tutoring and games. It is a safe and nurturing place for the nearly 20 children who attend each day.
Knowing they belong
“The children who are involved in Foleza and who live at the residential home come from some kind of disadvantaged background,” said Sonya. “We want to give them the chance to focus on their studies and know that they belong.”
Most children in Ersekë are able to attend school, but some aren’t set up for success. For example, some children start school late and struggle to catch up. For one young woman, who spent her early years as a child living on the streets, school is a challenge because of a delayed start and learning challenges.
Sonya attends the Ersekë Evangelical Church and serves as the office administrator for the local Torchbearers International Bible training and camp center that partners with the church. The Ersekë Evangelical Church started the House of Hope, a children’s home led by American missionaries who serve as house parents. The majority of the children that attend the after-school program came from vulnerable and broken family situations, while about one-third of the children reside in the House of Hope, giving them the security of a family environment.
An ambitious vision
Foleza is a small program with an ambitious vision:
to see each student succeed in school and life. Without
primary education, it’s difficult to get a decent job. As is the case everywhere else in the world, education makes all the difference. A safe place to study, learn, and grow ensures that students can finish school.
Foleza provides the structure and support for students to thrive in school. Each day, the few rooms at the local church where Foleza is located remain still all morning until the students arrive at noon. Gathered around two tables, the lively students eat a hot lunch together and are all recruited to wash dishes and clean up. After free time, the students — who range from third grade through high school — divide into groups by age. Albanian teachers facilitate tutoring time.
Though these few hours provide needed structure for students to focus on their work and thrive in school, the setting of three small rooms for so many students can get noisy. The teachers and church leaders who oversee Foleza see the program as an opportunity to cultivate character in the students, including order, respect, and looking out for each other.
A simple investment
Practical resources are essential to the success of Foleza and the students it nurtures. Among other improvements, Foleza is purchasing new desks for some of the classrooms so that instead of sitting together around a table, children can focus. For the older students, each desk comes equipped as its own cubicle, with walls on the sides and front to encourage even more focus.
“This kind of simple investment in each student is powerful,” said Sonya, “because it communicates that their education is important and encourages a deeper commitment from each student to their own learning.”