I met Valentin 3 years ago when we became colleagues at work. The office I used to work in was one of the ShoeBox centers in Cluj-Napoca. In December the place was filled with hundreds of boxes and presents and dozens of volunteers who were working day and night. Among them were Valentin and his wife, the founders of this charitable initiative.
I liked them right from the start because I saw that they were good, hardworking, intelligent and modest. In the fever of the 10th ShoeBox edition, between emails, phones, and text messages, Valentin told us about his childhood, about the experiences that marked him, about kindness, the joy of giving and to people next to us.
Valentin, they say that kindness is learned in childhood. Does that apply to you as well?
Certainly, though, I had a pretty ordinary childhood for those times. I was born and grew up in the village of Şoimoş, the city of Lipova, Arad County. Until the fifth grade I lived in communism. I grew up like any other child with the homeland falcons and pioneers. We had a decent life. My family was not wealthy, but I did not miss anything, because nobody had much back then.
“I worked the field with my family since I was a kid. This is when I learned an important lesson: nothing happens unless you work hard”.
My father used to work as an electrician in our village, my mother as an accountant in Arad. Poor mom had to do commute every day 36 km by train: she left early in the morning and returned late at night. That’s why it was my grandmother who took care of me and my two brothers most of the time. We still call her mother.
I worked the field with my family ever since I was a kid: hoeing, digging, taking care of animals. I did it all. This is when I learned an important lesson: nothing happens unless you work hard. I have never been reluctant to work physically. I always thought that higher education does not necessarily make you superior to those who do not have it, but it simply gives you opportunities to progress and work.
Being close to the border, we watched Serbian TV channels. I remember watching the TV with my parents and marveling when seeing things that did not exist in Romania: different products, brands of cars, unusual buildings. My parents used to listen to Europa Liberă (Free Europe) radio station in the bedroom, and our father taught us not to disclose this to anyone, inventing a kind of spy game in which we had secrets to be protected.
What were the sweets of your childhood?
The sweets of my childhood were chocolate, from which I received a square once a week, and the bananas we had to put in the closet between the clothes in order to help them ripe. We also had 3-4 cocoa candies once in a while.
Being the oldest of my brothers, I was often sent to the cooperative to take the rations: bread, butter, eggs. I had a Pegas bike. Ah, I rode it so many times! I had to wait in line for 4-5 hours. When returning home, I put the bags on the bicycle handlebars and walk to make sure I bring them home safely. Sometimes I got candies too. When leaving the cooperative, I had none left: I ate one immediately and shared the rest with other children.
“After the Revolution we used to wave when seeing foreign cars. They stopped and gave us candies and bubblegum. This is when I saw chocolate and Nutella for the first time”.
I was in the 5th grade at the Revolution. I still remember the hundreds, maybe even thousands of convoys with help coming from outside. This is when I first saw a packed chocolate, a jar of Nutella. Lipova is 70 km from the border. Many foreigners were passing by. They were coming with cars and they used to give us food. We used to wait on the sidewalk, raise our hand. Strangers that were diving by threw out candy, bubblegum and all kinds of sweets.
What is the most vivid memory you have as a kid?
In the first summer after the Revolution, a baroness from Italy came to our school and said she wanted to give to the best pupils a 2-month trip to Italy with all the expenses covered. I had the luck to be the 1st in my class that year. This trip was my first experience of getting out of the communist space.
“When leaving home my father gave me 20 German marks and said, “Kid, this is all the foreign money we have. Take really good care of it”.
When leaving my father gave me 20 German marks and said, “Kid, this is all the foreign money we have. Take really good care of it. Spend it only in case of an emergency, only if you really have to!” When we got in bus we were going to ride to Italy, we were amazed: the interior was better than any of us had at home. The organizers told us that this was just the transport and that true beauties are just coming, and we could not believe it.
When we first entered a store on the route and saw all the food on the shelves, we were so stunned that we did not really know what to take. I also remember the moment when I received in Italy an ice cream with three globes just for me. It was an incredible moment.
One of the first trips organized by the baroness was at the Ferrero sweets factory that produces Nutella and the Kinder eggs. I remember chasing with the tongue out the wagons from the factory to catch some drops of chocolate that fell from above once in a while. We ate so many Kinder eggs that we felt sick.
We also visited the AC Milan team from which we received a football and t-shirts signed by the players. That summer I visited schools, kindergartens, student dormitories, and this opened my appetite to travel, to know more and to meet people from other countries.
You said you were used to work since you were a kid. What was your first job?
From the 6th grade I started to go with my father to the customs in order to help those who came with donations: I offered myself as a translator, dad helped with the paperwork. I was fluent in German and French, so at the age of 12 I was acting as a translator for various humanitarian convoys coming from abroad.
“When I was 12 I was already working as a translator for various humanitarian convoys coming from abroad”.
People asked me how much they should pay me by hour. I did not imagine I could get money: first of all because I was a child, secondly because I did not understand the concept of hourly payment. So I accepted food and different products instead.
Over time I met various entrepreneurs from Germany who offered me to visit them during the holiday. Initially I refused: it seemed wrong to me to travel abroad while my family worked the land at home. I said I would only go if I was offered something to work.
When I was in the 9th grade a German gave me the opportunity to do what is now called an internship at a factory and to learn with German children. As part of the program, I learned how to weld, how to screw, how to operate different cars – stuff I was used to do at home.
“I went to work in Germany in the 9th grade during the summer vacation. After working there for 3 months I returned home with the money my parents made in 1 year”.
I lived in the family of the person who invited me. They offered me accommodation and meal free of charge. I was able to save all the money I earned. I worked there for 3 summers. After working there for 3 months I returned home with the money my parents made in 1 year. Above all, I learned there that I can think freely, that I can choose my way in life.
What did you do after finishing highschool?
I went to university in Arad. I studied Theology and English. I was interested in English first of all. I was never interested to become a priest; I just had some existential questions. I liked best the compared theology, because it allowed me to study other religions, analyze other ways of thinking.
That’s where I met my future wife. Now I am 38 years old, I am married, I have 2 children and I lived in Cluj-Napoca for the last 18 years where I did a second degree in economics. There was a time when I was convinced that I needed a diploma to work in a certain field. Now I do not believe the same.
I still encourage my children to go to school, but I think that, if you are passionate and good at something and if you make consistent efforts to go in that direction, you will reach your goal with or without a university degree. But in order to do that you have to be very ambitious. Reach your goals without harming other people, because what goes around comes around.
Speaking of passion and studies, what is your current occupation?
I work in IT – an area that has nothing to do with the studies I made. For me, IT has always been a great passion. I’ve always been fascinated by computers. The first computer I’ve ever seen in my life was in highschool, in the physics lab.
“I fell in love with communication, blogging and social media and I manage to combine them well with my passion for technology and IT”.
I still remember the moment when I discovered copy – paste. It seemed to me like magic. Then I discovered the internet. I was among the first 25 people on the mIRC Romania channel. I created the Diaspora channel. Then I fell in love with communication, blogging, and social media, occupations that I manage to combine well with my passion for technology and IT.
Besides this, I like people and stories: to discover them, to listen to them and to pass them on. Just as you do the People of Transylvania. I do this on Facebook and on my blog where you can find the stories after the hashtag #oamenidelanganoi.
“I TRAVELED the world and after years of wondering when I had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of people, I realized that we are more similar than we think”.
Due to my job I travel a lot. I traveled the world and after years of wondering when I had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of people, I realized that we are more similar than we think. I have talked to people from large cities and small towns, from different geographic regions, of different ages, with different social positions and financial situations. I realized that, in essence, we all have the same fears and joys in life.
I know that charity is an important part of your life. Let’s talk about ShoeBox which is now 10 years old. How did this project begin?
ShoeBox started in 2007 as a family initiative. My wife and I wanted to teach our son, Luca, to share what he had. I have never thought this initiative will turn into an international project where we will manage tens of thousands of presents each year.
The idea came somehow from the presents we used to receive for Christmas after the Revolution. Some of them were packed and labeled by age and gender: boy or girl. We did this in our family: we took some bags of clothes and sweets, and we all went to Pata Rat (a poor area outside of the city) together with one more family. We gave our presents to the children who lived there.
“ShoeBox started in 2007 as a family initiative. I have never thought this will turn into an international project with tens of thousands of presents each year”.
Luca told about it at school. Other parents found out and they told us they wanted to participate in our project as well. They were amazed when I told them I had no project or NGO. But we promised them that we would organize something similar the following year, hoping in secret that they would forget about it.
Fortunately they did not. In September 2008 I created a group on Yahoo Messenger and we started collecting presents in my mother’s garage. In the first year we had 512 boxes. I couldn’t believe it. We were not ready for so many gifts and we did not know what to do with them. It was very interesting.
“When he found out about Shoebox, the CEO was impressed. Not only did he approve my leave, but he also proposed to extend the project to the four cities where the company had offices”.
The following year, things started to pick up, so I had to take one month’s leave to manage the project. At that time I was working at iQuest, an IT company in Cluj-Napoca. I had to talk to Cornelius Brody, CEO of the company, for approval.
When he found out about Shoebox, Cornel was impressed. Not only did he approve my leave, but he also proposed to extend the project to the four cities where iQuest had offices. He offered me a space in every city and a person to handle the presents. This is how Shoebox became a national project. That year we gathered 2,800 boxes. That is when I realized what the potential of this project was.
What are the main principles of ShoeBox?
In the Shoebox project we have 3 main rules:
“ShoeBox has nothing to do with Santa Clause”.
1. ShoeBox has nothing to do with Santa Clause. You will not find him mentioned anywhere. When we offer gifts, we explain to the children that they are sent by other people who have taken their time and money to offer them a gift.
The gifts did not come magically from Santa Claus without any effort, on the contrary. Many people have made efforts for him or her to receive that gift. My idea is to plant a seed of kindness, so that when these kids become adults they will do the same thing.
“We do not receive financial donations. All the presents are made by the people”.
2. We do not receive financial donations. I think that it’s too “cheap” for you as a participant to give money. My goal is for you to make an effort, to take your time to make a gift, to get involved in what you do. Donating money is like ticking a checkbox on your conscience that you did something good.
Do not get me wrong, it’s good to donate money, but I think it’s not enough. To be clear: the ShoeBox project has never received and will never receive sponsorships or gifts from organizations. All of our boxes are made by other people.
“ShoeBox is not an NGO and it will never be”.
3. ShoeBox is not an organization, it is not a legal person, it’s not an NGO and it will never be. I have 2 reasons for that. There are many people who have had unpleasant experiences with NGOs and foundations in Romania. We want to make a clear distinction between them and us.
This year we are celebrating 10 years of ShoeBox and we have never had any problems with money or boxes that have been lost and have not reached their destination. Yes, ShoeBox – the gift in the shoe box is a registered trademark. But I registered it just to avoid others taking advantage of this name.
“At ShoeBox you do not participate in a charity project. At ShoeBox you are the project. The man who takes the present to a child is the ShoeBox project”.
The second reason is that if I associate ShoeBox with an organization, I lose the personal involvement factor. At ShoeBox you do not participate in a charity project. No! At ShoeBox you are the project. The man who takes the present to a child is the ShoeBox project.
How did the project change throughout the years?
Initially we accepted used things too, but we had to throw about 10% of the stuff. Some people cleaned the house and put in the boxes all the junk they did not need. There were thousands of volunteers who sorted the boxes day and night. Then we decided to change the rule.
3 years ago we started to accept only new things. Initially the number of boxes decreased by 80%, but the feedback for the ones we received was extraordinary. There are people who bring presents every year. Some people convince their friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and relatives to participate.
“What we are trying to do with ShoeBox is to educate people: to stop being selfish, to do good things, to think about others too”.
Many parents take children with them when they distribute gifts. This has an extraordinary effect. When they see people living in poverty, children stop being capricious and realiz how lucky they are. What we are trying to do with ShoeBox is to educate people: to give up selfishness, to do well, to think about the others too.
Often the ShoeBox present serves as the beginning of a relationship. People exchange phone numbers, keep in touch and help each other. There are many who sponsor foster children to continue their studies, provide them with money to buy books and pay their visits to the doctor.
“Often the ShoeBox present serves as the beginning of a relationship. People exchange phone numbers, keep in touch and help each other”.
There are stories I come to find out years after they happened, stories that would not have happened if there had not been that moment with the gift in the box. I still remember the first phone call I received from abroad: it was from a family of Romanians working on an oil platform in the United Arab Emirates. They read on Facebook about ShoeBox and wanted to help. It was 4 in the morning in Romania.
I guess ShoeBox involves a great deal of time and energy from your part. How long will you be able to go on with this project?
It’s true. Shoebox is a giant, a huge project. Most of the people don’t even imagine. We receive hundreds of emails, messages, and phone calls. Every year at the end of December we tell ourselves that we’ll not get involved the next year, that we’ll let someone else manage the campaign; that the project is too big, that it’s too much for us. Then the NGOs, the press and the people start looking for us.
“Every year at the end of December we tell ourselves that we’ll not get involved next year, that we’ll let someone else manage the campaign”.
In December we practically do not have children for about 2-3 weeks, we are so caught up that we prefer to take them to stay with my mother-in-law. She, indirectly, manages what is most important to me and my wife, our children, allowing us to take care of the others. And we cannot thank her enough for that!”
Many times I do not have the time to talk to my wife for days about something other than ShoeBox. Sometimes I do not have the time to kiss her for days. Generally, I am responsible with collecting presents and my wife with distributing them. In this time of the year if I leave the phone for 15 minutes, I end up with 10 missed calls. Most questions are the same. That is why my request is: please go to our website, you will find answers to 99% of the questions there.
“There are people who help and do not expect anything in return. These are the people I appreciate the most”.
Many companies gather boxes and wait for someone to come and pick them up. This is not how things work for us. If you gathered boxes, you have to find a way to send them to a ShoeBox center. If you want to be a Shoebox location, then you have to find the children to give them to. In essence every ShoeBox location is a center in itself.
There are a lot of people who help you. Can you give us some examples?
Yes, we receive help from a lot of people and companies. Some print labels, banners and posters. Others send donations in fuel that help us distribute the packages. I have over 450 gb of photos from the project. I keep them on Box.com where I received free space for the project.
Once I ordered pizza at the Marty Restaurant at 2 o’clock in the morning for 20 volunteers who helped us. When they found out it was for ShoeBox, they did not accept any money. And this is happening all over the country, not just in Cluj. We also have a agreement with Rondocarton that gives us every year thousands of boxes.
“To do something good, to give a box to a poor child, to see the gratitude in his eyes: there is no greater reward for me”.
There are people who help and do not expect anything in return. These are the people I appreciate the most. Since the ShoeBox project has begun, it’s very difficult to find empty show boxes in Romania before the holidays. That means something.
It’s been 10 years since we stated the campaign, but the basic idea remained the same: to do something good, to give a box to a poor child is a kind of drug for me. To see the gratitude in his or her eyes while he or she asks me: “Is this gift just for me? Do I have to share it with anyone?” There is no greater reward for me.