In 2010, Mats Skott took over the Åre Extreme Challenge, a multisport race that involves kayaking, trail running and mountain biking.
Looking for volunteers at the time, he met a group of friend in his village that had started a project called “Projekt Åredalen”. These young people had wanted to make a change and had travelled to Romania to help Lee Saville of ANP NetWorks with his work there.
Mats developed a collaboration with the project. “They helped me with volunteers for the race and I donated money for each volunteer to their charity work,” he shares.
Two years later, Mats started buying hats from DECE for racers as a give away and also sold their products during the event. Mats began each race briefing talking about their work with DECE and how it helped the poor in Romania. “This provided perspective. We are all rather spoiled as we can have a lot of equipment and participate in different races.”
Mats articulates: “For me, it’s very important that we as race organisation take both a social and a environmental responsibility,”
Lee Saville and crisis situations
Lee Saville, Founder and President of ANP NetWorks, became a Christian while working as Managing Partner of a commercial law firm in the UK in 1994. Two years later, Sheffield-born Lee visited Romania for the first time and came face to face with the difficult and complex reality of poverty and children living on the streets.
“I couldn’t get those images out of my mind and heart, and felt a strong call to serve the poor,” Lee, 60, tells me. “In 1996, I resigned from my law firm and sold my home and other stuff in the UK and came to Romania where I have been for the last 21 years living and working amongst the poor.”
Lee began working with street children, many of who were Roma, and they began to take him back to the homes they had run away from. There he saw the depth of the poverty in which people were living.
“I set up a charity trying to help families living in these very difficult circumstances and over the years have seen that simply giving things or money can sometimes do more harm to a family than good.
“So our priority became to develop empowering relationships to try to help families to help themselves and to avoid children ending up living in vulnerable situations.”
Explaining that his charity helps with crisis situations as they become aware of them, Lee underlines that they also see how important it is to help people help themselves. “We have a number of self-help programs, such as helping people to plant their gardens with vegetables and drill wells for irrigation, we lend tools so they can fix their homes or work their land and even simple washing machines to keep clothes clean helps to address physical needs.”
APN NetWorks began to develop play schools, after-school programs and creative education programs where children discover that learning can be fun, and began to help parents who cannot read or write see the value of education for their children. The organisation has worked hard on increasing school attendance and helping children remain in school.
But, as Lee says, without a steady and reliable income to enable a family to buy firewood or food or basic clothing for their children, or to pay for medicines, an electricity bill or carry out essential repairs to their home, then “the truth is that it is possible to unintentionally sustain people in poverty and a state of dependence”.
“We have watched as mentoring people into simple work, such as working vineyards, or small scale market gardening, flower production or employment within our own trading company – ‘DECE’ – has empowered families and brought hope and restoration, setting them free from the downward cycles of poverty.”
It began in 2009 with a ball of wool and a crocheting needle
DECE (which means “Why?” in Romanian) is the most successful of NetWorks’ initiatives to help create work in situations where it is hard for people to get jobs for a number of reasons including lack of education or opportunity.
“We began in 2009 by employing women to work at home and teaching them to crochet simple hats. When employed, in addition to a salary, all of her children are then covered by state health care.”
Lee continues, “We then expanded into producing organic cotton hats and opened a small hub where women could come to work each day and learn to sew. We saw though that this was not creating work opportunities for men and so began working with leather, producing leather accessories and now a wide range of leather products.”
DECE has now begun a small apprenticeship program where some of our artisans who have learned skills are passing these on to others within the community.
Hope, self-esteem and planning for the future
DECE is part of a holistic community development program that works with families living in very difficult circumstances. For example, families living in small mud brick houses with earth floors and no running water or drainage, and who struggle through winters where the temperature can go down to -25°C.
Medication is often too expensive to afford and many families struggle to provide simple necessities like shoes, basic clothing and food.
“A job brings hope, it restores self-esteem and it enables people to plan for the future,” Lee affirms. “Both men and women who work for DECE receive the security of a regular income.” DECE has seen first hand how this enables families to dream about the future, for themselves and for their children. “Families can plan for winter, buy firewood and food and medication for their children. Over this last year we have seen how families working in DECE have begun to carry out improvements to their small homes as they dream of better living conditions for their families.”
Help change lives with DECEclothing.com
“Every product you buy empowers people and helps change lives.” Lee encourages people to check out the DECEclothing.com, maybe for a birthday present or Christmas gift. Or just to support the movement. “Our mission is to produce the highest quality handmade products using the best possible materials. We try to use environmentally friendly materials because we believe in sustainability from start to finish.”
DECE’s biggest challenge is finding markets for their products. “We are currently selling in Sweden, the French Alps, the UK and the US, but we dream of employing more people because we can see what a massive difference it makes to a family.”
They are always looking for retail outlets and companies that they can produce DECE goods with as Christmas presents for their clients.
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue #3 (July 2017)