Leslie Hawke was already middle-aged when she arrived in Romania for the first time. Thirteen years later she is still there, running a nongovernmental organization she cofounded and continuing the work that earned her an Outstanding Citizen Award from the United States Agency for International Development in 2005.
A former editor and publishing executive, and mother of actor Ethan Hawke, Ms. Hawke left everything she knew in New York City to join the Peace Corps, trading a Central Park West apartment and leisurely Sunday brunches for life in Romania.
“I joined … to give myself time to think about what I ought to be doing, not really expecting to actually find it in the Peace Corps,” she explains one recent afternoon while sitting in her office in the center of Bucharest, the capital. Around her, many of the young employees of OvidiuRo, the NGO she cofounded in 2004, are busily working. The walls are covered with photographs, most of them showing children from poverty-stricken communities that OvidiuRo serves.
“The communities we are working in are the neediest in Romania, and many organizations don’t want to work there,” says Hawke, whom many consider an elder stateswoman of the nonprofit scene in Romania.
Hawke arrived in 2000 and found a country still emerging from decades of communist rule that ended in a bloody 1989 revolution. Posted to the small city of Bacau, she wrote in her first letter home: “In the beginning we stayed in a vacant high school dormitory that looked like an abandoned orphanage, including iron-barred gates on each floor and eight narrow beds to a room.”