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Retirement volunteering provides jobs for Romanians

By Sheri Hartzler

Jay Hartzler has turned his long-time summer hobby of doing custom woodwork projects in a home workshop into employment for people in a Romanian village where work is hard to come by.

After he retired from a 42-year career as a music teacher at two Mennonite high schools – Christopher Dock and Eastern Mennonite – he and I moved to Romania in 2013 for a year of work as Nazarene Compassionate Ministry volunteers.

When he first talked to Magda Cini, pastor of the Tigmandru Nazarene Church in Tigmandru, Romania, she mentioned that they had dreamed of starting a woodshop in the village. We had visited Romania twice on choir tours and we were both intrigued by the country and the people. Could we help make the dream come true?

ND20 2 Romania men work in Backyard

Jay and Sheri HartzlerJay and Sheri Hartzler have volunteered in Romania since 2013.

We spent the year doing language study, leading choirs, helping with music in church, and working with a kids’ club at the Tigmandru church. – and talking about starting a woodshop. That year was just the beginning of what has become a seven-year commitment to the people in this country located in the heart of Eastern Europe. Tigmandru (and the town of Sighisoara where we live) is in the Transylvania region of central Romania.

Tigmandru is a village 25 km from Sighisoara with a population of about 1500 people. Most of the people in the village do not have regular jobs and find it hard to provide for their families. There is a school which goes through eighth grade; however, many adults cannot read. Currently many leave the village, and the country, in search of work.

The Tigmandru Church set up a not-for-profit Ateliere Nazarineanului) so that they could hire people and sell items separate from church activities. The woodshop was one of the NGO activities, to help provide job skills and income to men in the village.

After that first year, we spent nine months in the US and then returned to Romania. Plans for a woodshop began in earnest.

Romanian Workshop MenJay Hartzler (r) and workers take a break.The first decision was where to have the woodshop. The best space seemed to be a building directly behind a house the church owns, close to an open storage area for wood.

Jay is used to working with wooden studs and drywall for the walls. Romanian builders use block and stucco. After three months of debate Jay relented and construction began with block. They dug footers out by hand with a horse and wagon, bringing supplies and putting up walls to replace those in disrepair.

Once the rooms were completed, they installed three-phase electric for the saw; purchased tools, a work bench and wood. (A table-saw and jointer had been purchased earlier). Money for this work and the equipment purchases came from donations and a grant from Nazarene Compassionate Ministries.

On July 31, 2015 work finally began in the woodshop with three men: Cini Ioan (Niluțu), Piri Gabriel Marian (Gabi), and Antal Attila. The men first put together a workbench and built another work-table and a storage cabinet for tools.

A few small projects were made, with training being the primary focus. This included discussions of the best kinds of boards, how to look at a plan and understand what to do with it and using tools to avoid injury.

Jay spent mornings finding supplies and wood, a difficult task. While Romania has large expanses of forest, finding wood other than pine was difficult. He finally located a business that sold walnut and purchased a cubic metre.

He never found plywood at all until 2020 and had to glue up boards to make the framework for the cabinets. Eventually he found oak, walnut, beech and linden.

Wood sales are regulated in Romania, due to pirating of wood to sell in other countries. Every transport of wood is monitored and documented on a central database. When transporting wood on his car, if Jay didn’t have the paperwork for his purchase, the police could confiscate the car and the wood and levy a fine.

Finding supplies was like a treasure hunt, in various small shops in Sighisoara. The large lumber stores in Targu Mures, an hour away, lacked quality tools and materials.

Finally early this year, Jay found a wood store in Cluj, a town three hours from the shop, that had plywood and every other kind of wood he wanted. This came about through a contact made in a Romanian woodworker’s forum on Facebook.

The guys made tables and display racks as well as small items for tourist shops, but evolved very quickly into making custom furniture. As word of mouth spread, people began ordering desks, bed frames, dining room tables, nightstands, coat racks, dressers, and kitchens.

The woodshop also made cupboards to store shoes, corn-hole games, bunk beds, unfinished wooden boxes to store firewood, and all the furniture for a new AirBnB in Sighisoara.

One guide for churches in the citadel (the 13th century walled center of the town), after ordering a new kitchen and a number of other pieces of furniture for his own house, recommended the woodshop to many of his friends.

The guide often went with Jay to their homes to introduce him and help with translations when needed. Many times several trips were needed to someone’s house before the order was made.

Meetings often included meals, drinks and conversation – sometimes in two or three different languages.

Jay and his colleagues hope to build a larger workshop. In 2019, the shop began using the two rooms of the original house on the church property, for doing the finish work but the space is still limited.

Work teams, drawn largely from the Nazarene Church, will be able to provide labor and some funding and additional funds will be sought from donors and grants. With a new space, we hope to increase the work day to full time for the men and be able to add more workers.

Jay Hartzler demonstrates how to change a saw blade.Jay Hartzler demonstrates how to change a saw blade.Much of the work, the labor, and the money that has gone into making the Tigmandru woodshop a viable enterprise, is the result of a dream, prayers, and the ongoing support of many people around the world.

Many challenges remain. These include finding someone to train to take over Jay’s job of marketing, drawing up plans, teaching and supervising; and making the shop profitable without relying on donations. (We hope to continue doing this work as long as our health holds up.)

We would also like to increase staff hours to full time and hire more workers, increase salaries and add retirement and health insurance benefits, and generate profits to support the church’s work in the community

We are grateful to God not only for orders for furniture, but for friendships that have been formed among the workers, and between Jay and the clients. We are thankful for safety, for the abiity to teach (and learn) new skills, and for the opportunity this shop has been to be a light in the community.

For more pictures of products made by the Tigmandru Woodshop, visit https://www.facebook.com/mobilalacomandaTigmandru

Jay and Sheri Hartzler, Harrisonburg, Va. are members of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. Sheri does the bookkeeping for the woodshop, works in administration and fundraising for the Veritas Foundation in Sighisoara (a social work not-for-profit) and helps run a children’s program in the Tigmandru church.

Their interest in international work is in part a result of participating in Goshen College’s Service Study Term (SST) program. They highly recommend a volunteer “career” for retirement.