At Fǎrǎ Limite Climbing Gym, Roma kids learn more than how to scale a wall. They learn confidence and life skills—and they discover a more hopeful future in Jesus.
By Samantha Bouwers
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s an innocent enough question, but for the children and young people who visit Fǎrǎ Limite Climbing Gym in Vulcan, Romania, it’s not so simple.
Take Andrei as an example. He’s one of nine kids in the Muntean family. He’s ten years old, school is tough, and life in the Dallas neighborhood of Vulcan, a city in Romania’s Jiu Valley, is especially difficult. His family lives at the top of a 12-story apartment building, which has questionable heat in winter. School is about two blocks away. That’s his world: those twelve flights of stairs, that two-block walk, and the school building.
Suppose he stays in school and graduates. What then? Some men work in the area’s coal mines, but the national government is in the process of closing down all but one mine. And the handful of restaurants and shops in the valley are not enough to offer employment to all of the region’s residents.
Andrei’s only viable option would be to try and scrape together enough money to leave the valley to seek work as a manual laborer elsewhere in Europe. If that’s his future, why try in school?
But Andrei is trying. And succeeding. His teachers have noticed a change in him this school year. Compared to last year, he’s engaged, he’s not disruptive during class, he wants to learn, and he’s working hard at his studies. What has made the difference?
“It’s the gym,” his mother, Loredana says. “I tell his teacher that he’s doing well in school because he wants to climb. It’s been something so good for him.”
That gym—Fǎrǎ Limite Climbing Gym—was founded in 2015 by RCA missionaries Felipe and Janelle Silva, with kids just like Andrei in mind. As the Silvas looked around their adopted homeland of Romania (Felipe is Brazilian; Janelle is Canadian), they knew God had a plan to use them to speak truth to children and families. Without a clear or hopeful vision of the future, many Roma children and young people turn to drugs or violence; the Silvas are following God’s call to help them see that there is more to life.
“I hope that they see the world in a different way, a little bigger than what it is for them right now,” Felipe says.
The requirements for membership in the gym are simple: come twice per week, attend the weekly reading hour, and stay in school. So yes, you could say Andrei is motivated in his studies. Thanks to Fǎrǎ Limite, he and several of his siblings have been able to learn new skills (the least of which is rock climbing), travel, and expand their world a tiny bit.
The Silvas fell in love with rock climbing while attending Northwestern College. From their first climb at Blue Mound State Park near Luverne, Minnesota, they had an immediate connection to the sport. When Janelle accepted a volunteer position with the New Horizons Foundation near Vulcan, Felipe began to look for ways to bring his passion for climbing to the valley.
It wasn’t difficult—situated in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, the area is rife with adventure sports and tourism. But for the Silvas, this venture is about so much more than climbing.
“It’s a personal relationship more than anything we do,” Felipe says.
That mission of relationship-building is reflected in the gym’s three objectives. First, Fǎrǎ Limite aims to create an environment that is safe for every child involved. Everyone who comes to climb can feel safe and respected. The Silvas and their staff foster a culture of nonviolence and try to be positive role models for the 50 or so kids who come regularly.
Next, they try to use their position as role models to influence the kids’ character and faith development. “Each child should know the love of God and learn to love their neighbor as themselves,” says Janelle. The Silvas do this by forming personal relationships with the climbers and challenging them to learn how to love their neighbor. They’ve also established a weekly reading hour, during which they read a story, sometimes directly from the Bible. The reading hour allows the Silvas the opportunity to teach lessons such as loving your neighbor and growing in who God created you to be.
The third objective of the gym is to foster reconciliation between neighbors. This is especially needed in an area where children like Andrei face discrimination for having Roma ancestry. Throughout Romania’s history, the Roma people have often been mistreated by the government and mistrusted by their communities. Felipe and Janelle often travel with the climbers to other areas of Romania for competitions, helping to foster positive relationships between the Roma youth from Fǎrǎ Limite and others in the climbing community.
These trips to various competitions are also a great way to teach the climbers practical life skills like basic hygiene and communication, as well as showing them the power of prayer. It became clear to Felipe that the lessons in prayer had sunk in when, on one such trip, the children asked to stop the vehicle.
“We need to pray before we leave Romania,” they said. When Felipe told them they were just leaving the Jiu Valley, not the whole country, the climbers were surprised. This was the farthest any of them had ever been from home. (Of course, Felipe still stopped to pray.)
For Andrei and his siblings, the competitions are a highlight of their involvement with Fǎrǎ Limite. In fact, at a recent competition, one of Andrei’s brothers, Remus, took second place in the rookie division. (Other Fǎrǎ Limite climbers rounded out the top three spots).
Loredana is still a little incredulous that her kids have opportunities like this. “At first they told me they came to the gym and they were climbing the walls, and I was like, ‘You’re crazy!’ I’m from Dallas—how should I actually know what this is! I’ve only seen it in the movies.” And yet, she’s thankful, now that she has seen all they’ve been able to do because of Fǎrǎ Limite.
“[My kids are] not outside fighting or stealing,” she says. “There should be so many kids coming here. They have no idea how much they can learn.”
The Silvas agree. Their vision includes opening a second gym in a neighboring town and continuing to expand what they offer children and their families through tutoring programs, parent support groups, and other outreach activities.
“My final goal for every kid in the gym,” Felipe says, “is that they will see the love of Christ and give their lives to him.”
Loredana also recognizes that this is about so much more than climbing for her children. “I’m thankful for what is taught at Fǎrǎ Limite. It’s like a second school, teaching my kids skills they can use. I hope they climb as high as they can.”
Samantha Bouwers is a long-term volunteer with RCA Global Mission. She and her husband, Joel, have spent a year visiting RCA mission sites and documenting stories of transformation. When they are not traveling, the Bouwerses live in Coralville, Iowa, where they are members of New Life Community Church (RCA).
Support the work of Felipe and Janelle Silva as they help Roma children and youth envision a better future. Visit www.rca.org/silva to learn more and to donate.