Péter Lázár

This description of Péter Lázár's work was prepared when Péter Lázár was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999 .

Introduction

Peter Lazar's Dear House Project in the poorest region of Eastern Hungary provides a family atmosphere to gypsy children from disadvantaged and poor families. Children live all week in the dormitory attached to the school where they learn social and life skills as well as taking part in the educational program at the school. On the weekends, the children go home and begin to teach their parents what they have learned. As a result the parents are returning to school to finish 8th grade diplomas and the children are integrating themselves into normal secondary school classes.

The New Idea

Peter has begun to implement and institutionalize his own unique techniques to deal with teaching gypsy children and their parents life skills at the same time they study in school. Peter Lazar has won the trust of his own gypsy community as well as with educational institutions, teachers and local administrators through his multi-faceted program for gypsy children and families. The program base is in the dormitory, called simply Dear House by the children, which first opened in September 1995. Here gypsy boys and girls from the ages of 7-14 live and study together, forming a family with the teachers who live with them in the dormitory. The Dear House Project is designed to improve developing Roma grassroots communities through many of its programs, which include primary school training, developing local clubs, vocational training and mental hygiene courses and new teaching methods for primary school teachers and students in their last year of college. Peter has also initiated training towards an 8th grade diploma for Roma parents. Another part of the program is the Cooperating Schools Network which functions to facilitate positive approaches to teaching Roma children, building up partnerships between educational institutions, and the transfer of information in order to find areas where institutions can cooperate in order to create a talented and developing information network.

The Problem

Peter Lazar grew up, lives and works in the poorest part of Hungary that has a large Roma population. Generally, Roma children are classified as either mentally retarded or handicapped and are placed in special classes or institutions from which it is hard to escape and live productive lives. This is because, first of all, the Roma culture is different in many respects to the Hungarian culture and is viewed by the majority as different and often inferior. At the same time, living in a poor region with unemployment continually mounting as a problem, Roma families are the most vulnerable to structural economic changes that have taken place. Therefore, they suffer the greatest from unemployment and the economic hardships that the transition entails. Many Roma families are simply unable to provide for their offspring. These children grow up as a disadvantaged group in a disadvantaged area of Hungary with society working against their favor. In a typical village there are 200-300 Roma without much of a chance to succeed. The inability of the official state educational system to provide the necessary educational curricula and training predestines the Roma children to failure, and also develops the attitude of hopelessness towards the future. They are not even given basic education in personal skill development, which would insure their future integration into the Hungarian educational system and society.

The Strategy

After the agreement of parents was secured, the real lobbying and organizing began (ministries, Soros Foundation). The children moved into a vacant house in September 1995 and today the dormitory is in its second year. Parents, who really care for their children, understood that in the dormitory they would learn a better way of life. They trusted the teachers and the dormitory and in their children's success. Many of the parents, encouraged by their children's success, are sitting behind desks studying to receive the graduation from 8th grade certificate. Parents and children both enjoy taking part in the programs (parent's day, school programs, grades).

The Dear House project wants to change the public educational system to help the multi-disadvantaged Roma children in studying and developing their educational level to that of other children. This requires the cooperation between the school and the dormitory that is the basis for building upon each other's activities. The "home room" in the dormitory, where they live from Monday to Friday, gives the children social background and stability. Both the activities in the dormitory and the school impose the same type of symbolic grading mentioned above. The base of the training is the individual and is two-sided: ensuring a well-rounded emotional and academic development for the students, and the acceptance of "otherness" by schoolteachers. The number of concrete activities is increasing. Today there are 20 activists organizing and leading different programs (teachers, healthcare workers, social workers, college students).

The school and dormitory function as a high quality, well-built and maintained model for the country. Proof of its success is that it has become a model for the region and 30 other villages have asked to be informed about the work and for help, including also requests from neighboring Romania. Today the children are integrated and study in normal classes. Teachers are using this comprehensive program for Roma children, not just those assigned to special classes. Teachers meet the students not just in the classroom, but in the dormitory as well in afternoon study circles or other professional clubs. The dormitory provides facilities for sports, games, drama, excursions and cultural events. Peter is opening a second house this year, and not just for Roma children. Because of the Dear House something has tangibly changed in Nyirtelek. Children are successful in school; teachers employ new methods and observe through the eyes of the "other." The parents, teachers and children are now all organized into a community.

The project is so successful that Peter feels there is a great need to explain and share these methods and educational programs with others and to work out the adoption of such programs elsewhere. Now he wants to expand the vocational training program to educate members of the community to organize themselves in order to lead independent lives. He has initiated the placement of older children in technical training schools and wants to develop programs for children over 14 years of age. He has begun this by extending the Cooperating Schools Network to include graduates from his secondary school. Already the parents of children going to the Dear House feel themselves very much a community and Peter wants to spread these grassroots organizational skills to others so that they can become credible leaders in their community, able to transfer real human goals and values on to others.

The Person

Peter comes from a Roma family with six children. When he was 4 years old his parents turned him over to the state authorities because they could not take care of him and he grew up in Berkesz Home for Children, which is a state orphanage. He attended secondary school where he was classified as mentally retarded. He graduated from the Teacher Training College in Nyiregyhaza with degrees in biology and gymnastics. Later he attended the Kossuth Lajos University of Sciences, in the Faculty of Education. For five years he taught in the Berkesz Home for Children where he had grown up. He was an official consultant and "parent" at the Institute for Children and Young People in Nyiregyhaza and later took the job in Nyirtelek where he began to institutionalize his methods and vision. More recently he was employed for 6 months as a regional advisor and professional program advisor for the Soros Foundation. He has published a text titled: Individual Alternative Personal Development Education Program for Disadvantaged Roma Children, From 1st Grade to 4th Grade. He says, "because we have people's trust we are successful and can show a positive visual impact. I am sure there is a tremendous need for these projects and their expansion. I am a pioneer. I started the program, found and reinforced the teachers, social workers and leaders who were able to improve their environment and the current situation of the endangered Roma minority." Peter is also the father of 3 children and says that his wife, also a teacher, stays at home in order to give some sense of constancy and continuity to their children as he fulfills his mission.