Connecting With Croatia

project lifeBoca High Students Bring Hope to Gypsy Children

One student’s summer trip has turned into a vision for a Croatian community of children that has become contagious at Boca High School. In June, a group of 19 students from Boca High’s Project Life Club will travel to Croatia and build relationships with Roma-Gypsy children who have been left in poverty after a forgotten war between Croatia and Serbia.

It all started when Matthew Lewis went to Croatia with his sister, Emily, and six of her friends from college. “The first time I went, my mom was making me,” said Lewis, “but once I was in the village, all these kids just wanted to be picked up and swung around as if I was their best friend.” Spending five weeks at a Roma-Gypsy community in Croatia, Lewis said they were without cell phones, and “the world here just disappeared and I felt a connection to these people.”

An idea

When Lewis came back to South Florida, he had an idea. “I kept thinking about these children and thought, I could take maybe four people and go back.” That simple thought led to the development of a Boca High School Project Life Club and to his surprise “it grew crazily.” At a club meeting he showed a u-tube video which caused the excitement to spread and students brought their friends.

They began fundraising at school and set up a booth at the Youth For Christ 5K Wild Run at the Miami Zoo manned by five or six kids. Over the school year, each student raised $2,300 for his or her support. Almost all of the money was raised through garage sales, neighborhood walks and letter writing campaigns. Finally in June Matthew Lewis will return to Croatia with 18 friends from Boca High. The students will be in Croatia from June 11 – 30.

Club goals

According to Lewis, Boca High Project Life has three goals:

1) We sponsor Alijandra, a 6-year-old child in the Roma village.

2) We hold fundraisers to help support and educate people about the Romi people.

3) We are bringing a team over to minister to the Roma children.

Pam Lamari, the Project Life missions director who will accompany the group in Croatia, said the club has also provided local community service opportunities for teens and is ultimately hoping to leave a legacy in Croatia by raising funds to build a learning center for this disadvantaged community of children. She has watched as these students have all begun to “catch the vision to change a life.”

Hooked

Demitri Boyum, a Boca High graduating senior, will be traveling with the group. “At first I was skeptical about the club, but when I saw Matt’s heart for the kids I wanted to get involved,” said Boyum. After volunteering at Lighthouse of Life Church Deerfield, founded by Andrew Vuksic, who also has a church in Croatia, Boyum said he was hooked because “I have never seen someone so devoted and faithful to what they were called to do.”
Lewis said, “The biggest need in my heart for these children is to give them hope because they are told they are worth nothing.”

The need

Project Life, a division of Gospel on the Go, has developed a first-class model for these children in orphanages and the impoverished Romi Villages. The international organization evolved in 2008 out of a desperate need to help the many children who lost their parents and extended family during the war between Croatia and Serbia. Official figures on the wartime damage specify 180,000 destroyed housing units, 25% of the Croatian economy destroyed, and $37 billion of material damage, according to projectlifeintl.org. The vision has expanded to include the local children in the surrounding communities and the children of the many poverty-stricken Romi villages.

A nomadic people who have settled in villages after the war, these people are considered third class citizens, explained Lewis. “They are stereo-typed as thieves and bad people, so no one will hire them and many families make money by having kids,” Lewis said. “They have so many kids.”

Romani women are sometimes married off by the age of 16 and families may receive a bride-price for the marriage. Children sometimes beg and dance for money, and some parents receive a benefit check for their children.

“These people need hope and the Gospel of Jesus,” said Lewis.

The mission

In addition to building relationships with the children in the Romi village in June, the team of Boca High students will be operating a Vacation Bible School program for the kids, helping with building projects, teaching English and bringing items to provide for their physical needs, said Lamari.

Project Life has four main objectives. Protect by providing a safe and nurturing environment. Proclaim the Gospel and encourage spiritual growth. Promote a sound and productive education, and provide the best physical care with a healthy diet and medical provision.

The stories

For now Mathew Lewis is still moved by the stories. Lewis said he was amazed by the reaction of a man named Doncho who smoked cigarettes his entire life and when he was told that his body was the temple of God he threw them all away and quit instantly.

And after they gave their sponsor child a framed picture of their family, Lewis said he learned that the child carries the framed picture with him and kisses the picture every morning. “These kids feel important for the first time knowing that someone in another country cares for them,” he said.

If you would like to help or learn more about the Roma-Gypsy children and Boca High Project Life, visit projectlifeintl.com. You can also follow their trip blog at emilyteresajane.wordpress.com

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