Video created by Iris Kaymak ’20
EcoVisio Moldova, a youth-led grassroots NGO in the small village of Rîșcova, envisions Moldova—the poorest and least-visited country in Europe—and its neighbors as a model region of empowered society, healthy environment, and vigorous, fair economy. “We’re trying to grow a group of young, active citizens who will care about the community and have the skills to help develop it,” explained Liliana Botnaru, Coordinator of Eco-Village Moldova. “We aim to connect changemakers, particularly in fields related to sustainable development—such as organic agriculture, eco-construction, civic activism, rural development, and social entrepreneurship—with the ultimate goal of developing as a community and as a country.”
The EcoVisio Moldova Opsahl Global Service Program group was established in 2018 by former program director Zach Mulert and TASIS Elementary School Teacher Kim Goldsworthy, who led the inaugural trip last spring. On the first trip, Ms. Goldsworthy, assistant faculty leader Mark Chevalier (TASIS Director of Communications), and 13 students spent a week at the Eco-Village, where they helped establish a new community park (the only one in the village), learned about sustainable development and organic agriculture, and forged powerful connections with members of the local community.
While Ms. Goldsworthy was unable to be a part of this year’s group due to a conflict with her teaching schedule, Mr. Chevalier signed on for another year and added first-year High School English Teacher Carolyn Rosenberger as a second faculty leader. After discussing Moldova’s history, the EcoVisio’s goals, and topics such as sustainable development and eco-construction at weekly meetings throughout the year, the two faculty leaders boarded a flight to Chișinău, Moldova’s capital city, with seven 11th-grade students on the evening of Friday, April 12. Below is their account of this year’s trip.
By Mark Chevalier and Carolyn Rosenberger
The Moldovan National History Museum (See more photos from this year’s trip on the TASIS SmugMug page.)
Day 1: Saturday, April 13
Due to a delay of our Friday evening flight from Milan to Chișinău, we did not reach our hotel until after midnight. Following a night of rest and a quick breakfast at the hotel, we were met at 10:00 by Valeria Șvarț-Gröger, EcoVisio Co-founder and Development Director, who we worked very closely with on our initial trip to Moldova the previous spring.
As we walked the streets of Chișinău—Moldova’s largest city with a population of around 530,000—Valeria pointed out the major landmarks and touched upon Moldova’s complicated past and current political issues. We picked up some supplies for the week ahead at the EcoLocal Farmers Market, did some additional shopping at a second outdoor market, and toured the Moldovan National History Museum before stopping for a traditional Moldovan lunch at a local restaurant.
As the rain that had been threatening all morning began to fall, we made our way back to the hotel to collect our suitcases and boarded a mini-bus for the one-hour ride to the Eco-Village in Rîșcova, a central-Moldovan village with a population of just over 1000.
After a quick break to unpack and settle into our simple but comfortable accommodations at the Eco-Village, we met in the Environmental Training Center—where we would hold all of our meetings and eat our meals throughout the week—to watch a presentation about the vision and goals of EcoVisio, get to know several members of the Eco-Village team, and discuss our aspirations for the week. We decided that we would focus our energies on six main projects:
- We very much wanted to add some playground equipment to the community park we helped establish the year before. (Prior to our arrival in year one, the “park” was really just an open grassy space behind the local Elementary School. During our first visit, we built four wooden benches, designed and constructed a unique sandbox, and made a small obstacle course out of recycled tires. We also helped raise money for the construction of a stage that was added to the park in between our two visits.)
- To make it feel more like a proper park that community members could take pride in, we aspired to beautify the grounds by adding flower beds and painting a mural.
- In our most ambitious undertaking, we hoped to build a treehouse in the orchard adjacent to the Eco-Village to provide a fun gathering place for the five children who live at the Eco-Village and other local youth.
- The Eco-Village recently added a horse sanctuary, and many of our students expressed an interest in helping out with the horses as time allowed.
- We agreed that we should help Liliana’s mother Claudia, an amazing cook and an even sweeter person, in the kitchen as much as possible. (The organic, vegetarian meals she prepares for our group three times per day are a major highlight of this trip.)
- We all decided that it would be important to cap off our week by hosting a community event in the park on our last full day in Rîșcova. This would require quite a bit of planning and would put some pressure on us to finish our projects on time.
With our project goals solidified, the adults took a step back and gave the students some time to collaborate, delegate tasks for the next day, and establish a detailed schedule for the week. It was obvious that the students—who had been nothing but positive, respectful, and appreciative throughout day one—were taking their time here very seriously and genuinely wanted to contribute positively to the community.
Following an invigorating dinner of fresh salad, rice with chickpeas and carrots, and lots of other ingredients and spices grown on the Eco-Village’s grounds, it was time for a quick evening meeting to summarize our plan of attack. We were impressed by how well the students listened to one another, debated the finer points of their plans, were patient with opposing points of view, and came together to reach solutions.
Before we retreated to our rooms for an early bedtime, we couldn’t help but notice two of our students approach Claudia and thank her for the delicious meal and for her hard work.
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The state of the park at the beginning of the week
Day 2: Sunday, April 14
After an early breakfast, we toured the Eco-Village grounds, examined the proposed treehouse setting, and made the first of many trips to the park (about a kilometer from the Eco-Village). It was heartwarming to see our contributions from last year now firmly installed in the park, which was still covered in snow when we departed on March 31.
Despite the cold and wet weather that we would grow accustomed to as the week wore on, our students drew inspiration from our short journey around Rîșcova and maintained a high level of enthusiasm. They met several students from the local middle school (there is no school in the village after grade nine) and immediately connected with them despite the language barrier. (Most residents of Rîșcova speak only Romanian and Russian, and no one in our group speaks either of these languages.)
Some of these students accompanied us back to the Eco-Village for a brief ice-breaking session in which they taught one another some basic expressions in English and Romanian—with great kindness and patience displayed on both sides. They then broke into teams, and it seemed as though we were unintentionally dividing along gender lines, with our three boys—Giovanni, Kazu, and Qeis—focusing on the treehouse (with help from several local students and Valeriu, an EcoVisio member whom we could not have done without), and our four girls—Carmen, Iris, Melina, and Regina—joining forces with Liliana, Valeria, and some girls from the local school to work on the park.
A brief planning session ensued, with Valeria and Kristina (another EcoVisio member) translating back and forth as the park team established a clearer action plan. Although our students were really ambitious with their ideas, they soon formed a solid outline of what they most wanted to accomplish: a mural for the stage with a design inspired by traditional Moldovan carpets, more playground equipment for the local children, flower beds encircled by rock walls throughout the park, and a community event that would include the planting of flowers in these new beds.
Meanwhile the boys looked at treehouse plans with Valeriu and investigated how they could establish a level platform while working with the natural shape of the tree and not harming it in any way whatsoever. It was clear that this would be the most difficult stage of the process, but the boys were determined to make it happen—especially Giovanni, who had been dreaming about building this treehouse since September.
It was time to get to work. We put in a solid opening session, broke for a delicious lunch that was highlighted by a pasta dish garnished with a fresh batch of pesto made by Claudia that morning, and continued working in earnest until it was time for dinner at 19:00.
Morale was high at that evening’s reflection meeting, as we all felt good about the progress we’d made already. We made sure the students knew we were impressed with their efforts so far and that they had accomplished far more than we expected on our first real work day. They in turn expressed how happy they were to be on this journey with one another and simply to be here in Moldova.“I am so glad I am on this trip because I am actually doing something,” noted Melina.
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Teaming up with the locals
Day 3: Monday, April 15
This was another big work day, with all the students remaining very invested in their individual and group projects. Down at the park, Carmen and Melina spent the morning hauling rocks, carefully piecing together the rock beds, and digging up grass to ready the soil for planting while Regina and Iris traced and began painting the mural. Many kids from the school flocked to the park to help the moment they had a break from their lessons.
With the sun peeking through after lunch, Carmen, Iris, and the locals made considerable progress on the mural while Melina and Regina created fliers to promote our community event and rode bikes all over Rîșcova to hang them up and pass them out. They even met the mayor!
All the while, the boys worked steadily on the treehouse and were grateful for the boost they received from local teenagers Marius and Ovidiu and from Danny, Liliana’s precocious 10-year-old son who always seemed to be around when we needed him. The team cut and stained all the wood for the floor and, despite the ever-present communication challenges, managed to fully install the base—by far the trickiest part—just before it was time to break for dinner at 19:00.
Several of the local teenagers and Corey—an American serving a two-year Peace Corps stint in Rîșcova—joined us for another wonderful dinner: fresh bread, salad with locally grown vegetables and feta cheese, and lasagna with pesto. They then had a lot of fun teaching our students some traditional Moldovan dances.
We closed the evening with a very productive reflection meeting in which we discussed some of the options for allocating the CHF 3000 our group raised throughout the year. We also asked the students specific questions about their experience so far, and they shared a number of stories. Qeis noted that he couldn’t think of one thing from that day he didn’t enjoy, and a number of others commented on how friendly the people in the village are and how eager they are to help. We discussed how important our time here is, how we are ambassadors for these local kids who may never meet another person from some of the countries we are from, how fortunate we are for all we have, and how we will be changed as a result of our time here.
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Day 4: Tuesday, April 16
As we did last year, we took a mid-week break from our projects to explore Orhei Vechio, a Moldovan historical and archaeological complex located in Trebujeni. We had planned to rent bikes and make the long ride through some trails in the woods, but the wet conditions rendered this impossible. Instead we hopped on a mini-bus and made the half-hour drive.
With Valeriu as our trusted leader, we braved cold, wet, and very windy conditions as we hiked along stunning ridges, explored ancient caves, and visited a historical monastery. After a nice tea break at a traditional Moldovan restaurant, we returned home in time for lunch and then held a meeting in which we assessed the state of all our projects and made plans for Thursday’s community event.
At 16:00, it was time to deliver the students to the three different host families they’d be spending the night with—an integral part of the Moldovan experience that was a bit more challenging this year due to our complete lack of Russian speakers. But as we stayed behind to enjoy a quiet dinner in Liliana’s house, it was heartening to see the kids filling up our WhatsApp group with messages about how much fun they were having.
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Day 5: Wednesday, April 17
We awoke to another cold, gray, and rainy morning, with all the students returning to the Eco-Village by 9:00. While the reviews from the first two groups were mixed, our spirits were buoyed when Iris and Melina burst into the room and declared, “That was the best night of our lives!” They raved about the deep conversation they had with their hosts over an excellent meal. (Because they stayed with the family that is hosting Corey during his Peace Corps stay, they had the benefit of having a translator, as Corey has already learned the Romanian language.)
As a good portion of the following day would need to be devoted to preparing for and carrying out the community event, we all knew this would be our final full work day, and the students rose to the challenge accordingly (and were even granted a bit of sunshine). The girls spent the day finishing the mural, tidying up the flower beds, and painting the playground structure that had been installed by some local workers that morning.
The boys installed the entire floor for the treehouse using a bespoke design that worked around the tree’s many protruding branches. (Again, the most important guideline was that we could not alter or harm the tree in any way.) Thanks to Valeriu’s expertise, just before dinner they also managed to successfully position four support beams that extended from each corner of the platform to a wooden structure we’d previously installed at the base of the tree—a very complex step.
After another lovely dinner, the students used our evening meeting to make their final plans for the community event and to work on the dance routine they planned to unveil. They were all really good sports about it and practiced repeatedly without complaining. We loved watching them interact, and this evening further confirmed how fortunate we were to be traveling with a really nice group of kids who are inclusive, friendly, and welcoming of one another.
Before we retired for the evening, two students indicated that they want to come back to Moldova next year. Two more would say this before the week was out.
* * *
Day 6: Thursday, April 18
With much still to be done, we all agreed to have breakfast a little earlier than usual and to be working by 8:30 at the latest. The treehouse crew built a customized ladder out of rope and wooden dowels and installed it with great pleasure. Although the treehouse will still need side railings and a half-roof installed, the most difficult part of the process was behind us, and it was time to turn our attention to the park.
We joined the girls, who had already put the finishing touches on the mural and cleaned up the stage, in the park at 11:00 for the first stage of the community event. Many villagers brought flowers and helped plant them in the four rock-encircled flower beds. Meanwhile lots of local children ran around the park while some of the older ones helped us move wheelbarrows full of gravel, stain the playground set, install a rock climbing wall, build a rope climbing wall, and figure out how to hang swings. As everything came together, we couldn’t help noticing that what was simply a neglected plot of land just one year ago was beginning to look like a proper park—the kind we all take for granted in Switzerland.
Two of our best helpers from the community
After a quick lunch break, some of us returned to the park to finish the swings and the rope wall while others stayed behind to prepare food for the main part of the community event, which was scheduled for 17:00. As the time approached, we finished the swings and nervously waited for the villagers to arrive.
To our great pleasure, more than 100 guests turned out. The mayor delivered a short welcoming speech and then called our group to the stage and asked each of us to introduce ourselves. Our students had many gracious things to say, and the crowd applauded happily as Liliana translated their remarks.
Liliana and the mayor
While the local choir sang a number of traditional Moldovan songs and our students bravely performed their synchronized dance routine (and then forced us to destroy the video footage!), dozens of children absolutely flocked to the playground equipment. There was so much competition for the swing set that a local mother had to institute a rule that each child could swing for one minute before returning to the back of the line, which was growing by the minute. Liliana confirmed what we suspected: most of these kids had never been on a swing before.
As Iris, Valeriu, and Corey worked through the event to finish the rope climbing wall, an enormous dance circle erupted in the middle of the park, with our students joining hands with their new friends in a final symbolic act. With bittersweet emotions, we returned to the Eco-Village at 19:15.
Our final evening reflection meeting was an emotional one, and we marveled at the things our students had to say about the week. Several admitted that they had not been looking forward to the trip at all but that they were now certain it would prove to be a pivotal experience in their lives. We told them they had exceeded our expectations in every way, and Liliana expressed her boundless gratitude for all they had accomplished.
“I’ve been really impressed by TASIS students,” she would privately tell us afterward. “It’s been inspiring to see their commitment, their focus, their great attitude, their energy, and their ability to adapt when the conditions they’ve been living in here in Moldova are quite different than what they’re used to. Above all else, their willingness to go outside their comfort zone to connect with young people from Moldova—despite language barriers—and try to work together, side-by-side, has been really inspiring.”
Not quite ready to close the book on our time at the Eco-Village, several of us joined Valeriu for a late-night cup of tea in the treehouse under a full moon.
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Our final dinner at the Eco-Village
Day 7: Friday, April 19
After a final breakfast, some time to tidy our rooms and pack our things, and a quick trip to the Eco-Village gift shop, we exchanged emotional goodbyes with our EcoVisio friends and assured them we’d be back next spring.
While our students began to board the mini-bus for the ride back to Chișinău and we were forced to come to terms with the fact that the journey was really over, we asked Liliana to help provide us with some perspective we could take back to Lugano. We asked her if TASIS, over these past two years, has helped the EcoVisio move toward achieving its lofty goals. Have we made a difference?
“With students from TASIS, we’ve managed to connect with the local community to implement several important projects,” she said. “The community park has become not only a center for people to get together but, more importantly, has provided hope, particularly for our youth. They see that we’ve tried to do something, that we’ve taken some small steps, and that gives them the confidence to undertake bigger initiatives, to feel the community spirit, and to feel pride for their village. I’m just grateful that we started the collaboration with TASIS, and I hope it will continue because it’s really been a great highlight for us in Rîșcova.”
Eco-Village: “The Mushroom”
Eco-Village: The Environmental Training Center
TASIS Opsahl Global Service Program
The Opsahl Global Service Program was envisioned by Jan Opsahl ’68, who became the first international student at TASIS when he came from Norway in 1965. The pioneering program was launched in 2013 with major support from a most generous donation from Mr. Opsahl and his family to set up the Global Service Trust. This Trust, along with support from the TASIS Foundation, make this incredible, life-changing experience for our students possible.
The Opsahl Global Service Program, which was directed by Zach Mulert through the spring of 2018 and is now led by Danny Schiff, transforms lives by providing every High School student a unique opportunity to connect across borders through comprehensive experiences that build empathy and encourage personal responsibility. Participation in the program—which is designed to awaken students to humanitarian needs, inspire them to build enduring, mutually beneficial relationships, and lead them toward a life of active citizenship and committed service—is a graduation requirement.