Although it lies only 30 minutes away from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, life in the tiny village of Sovkhoz Samgorski is worlds away. The countryside around this village, home to about 100 families, is dotted with abandoned and dilapidated Soviet-era concrete buildings. The past is often bleak so, consequently, the village's 22-room schoolhouse has become the focus of the community - and a hopeful symbol of its future.
Sitting at the desk in her modest office, school director Manana Tabatadze is aware of the optimism surrounding her workplace. In the 24 years that she has been the school's director, she has seen sweeping changes - some good and some bad.
In Soviet times, children would come from surrounding towns to study at the school, drawn by the good reputation that it had. Later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, everything literally fell apart.
"Don't even ask how things were from 1991 to 2003," Manana says. "It was a very bad time."
The lines supplying natural gas to the town corroded and fell to pieces, and although the power lines remained intact, there was no electricity. In 1998, most of the 40 year-old schoolhouse burned down in an accident, and for the next five years the students were all crammed into the four remaining rooms. Water leaked through the roof whenever it rained.
"At that time, nobody had any hope," Manana recalls.
Because of its proximity to the important Tbilisi-Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, Sovkhoz Samgorski was chosen to be part of Mercy Corps' Community Investment Project - East (CIP-E), funded by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) Company and Southern Caucasus Pipeline (SCP) Company. Mercy Corps first came to Sovkhoz Samgorski in 2003 and held a town meeting that was attended by at least one member of every household in town.
"The people from Mercy Corps started talking about all of the things that would be done in our village, this and that. We all listened and nodded…and nobody believed that anything would happen," Manana says with a laugh.
Three years later, the results are tangible. After ten years without natural gas, new pipes were laid and run to every house, finally offering a fuel source that is cheaper than electricity or firewood. At the school, there is no trace of the fire that reduced most of it to rubble eight years ago. A photograph on Manana's desk shows a group of young girls painting the fence that runs around the schoolhouse. The picture was taken nearly three years ago, when the school was completely rebuilt with the help of community members, including the children.
Manana remembers one night when it started to rain on the new tin roofing, which had just been delivered. Afraid that the wet sheets of tin would rust together and be ruined, Manana and a group of older students came to the school to dry the tin.
"We stayed here all night to dry the roofing, listening to music. Those children were completely committed to this project," she says.
The biggest change in the community is within the children themselves. "They are more responsible, they want to study, and they stay after school to work on projects," Manana says proudly. "Most importantly, these children now have hope, and big ambitions for the future."
This ambition and hope seems to be infectious. Manana says that in Soviet times, people were given everything and would only think of themselves and how they could get ahead. Today, the people in Sovkhoz Samgorski are learning that it is more important to support the community and the community's future, the children.
The children here are being prepared for a future in which they will no longer simply be given everything they need. Manana and the school focus on instilling a sense of entrepreneurship and independence in the children.
"We are trying to help them find their own way," Manana says. She noted that three boys who showed an aptitude for building during the school renovation project are now working as carpenters, and a fourth is apprenticed to a mason.
A sustainable future
Sovkhoz Samgorski was formerly a collective poultry farm but it ended with the Soviet Union and today, as in most of rural Georgia, there are no jobs. Each family here owns a few cows, and they manage to scrape by selling milk, yogurt, cheese and meat in the larger towns and cities nearby. Teaching the children of this town how to survive in a jobless economy is essential.
The Mercy Corps project helped to purchase new calves to improve the herd, and introduced more efficient animal husbandry practices. Now some families are talking about opening a store together for selling dairy products in a larger town nearby. Meanwhile, the children are learning about the business of agriculture, and Manana hopes that a sustainable future will be available for them right here in Sovkhoz Samgori.
"They might not be rich, but they'll be able to make a living," she says.
When asked how the community will carry on in the future, Manana does not hesitate to answer. "We have gas now, the school has been rebuilt and our livestock has been improved," she explains. "Thanks to Mercy Corps, we have everything that we need for the future."