A gentle hero to many in Romania, Valeriu Nicolae says that, at heart, he is more like former NBA star Michael Jordan — highly competitive and eager to improve in what he does best. In Nicolae's case that is helping others.
The Romanian rights activist has earned praise for his tireless campaign to improve the lives of the Balkan country's poorest and least privileged residents, particularly children.
This is a daunting task in the country of 19 million where hundreds of thousands of children lack basics and are unable to attend school. Romania is a member of the European Union but bad management and widespread corruption have stalled economic and social progress.
Nicolae told The Associated Press that for society to change, individuals should, too. He also thinks it should become mandatory for politicians to help someone before they take public office.
"It should be the basics: do good things for others!" he said. "Even a tiny bit of good for someone around you, and no bad at all."
Since starting in 2007, Nicolae's humanitarian organization Casa Buna, or Good House, has taken upon itself to support and supervise 315 children. The group provides aid and backing for the children and their families, including clothes, computers or books — but on condition they do not drop out of school.
Nicolae is a strong advocate of education to keep children off the streets and prevent them from straying later in life into alcohol or drugs. His work has gained further importance during the coronavirus pandemic that has increased social isolation and made life even harder for the poorest around the world.
On a frosty and snowy day this month, Nicolae's team visited villages at the foot of the Carpathian mountains, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) northwest of Bucharest, to deliver aid such as flour, sugar or hygiene products to people enduring the cold winter weather.
Many holding children, the residents of Nucsoara came out of their homes to greet Nicolae. Most of the houses in the village are unfinished, and families live cramped in small rooms. Among the necessities Nicolae brought along were toothbrushes, and he showed some of the children how to use them properly.
"There is nothing better than seeing you've changed the life of a child for the better," he said. "I don't think there are many people more rewarded by what they do than me."
Himself coming from a poor background among Romania's Roma, or Gypsy, community, Nicolae said he also was motivated by the help he received as a child which he said pushed him forward later in life. Throughout the Balkans, Roma minorities routinely face discrimination and remain among the poorest and most neglected communities.
Painfully aware of the anti-Roma sentiments that are widespread in his country, but also of global racism, Nicolae was among the initiators of the Respect anti-racist campaign during the soccer 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He has won international awards in recognition for his children's education bid.
"I was successful in helping many children and adults. I am stubborn and don't do things just for one day," he said. "I also failed thousands of times but that has placed me in a position to succeed (the next time). I never failed in the same way twice."
A rare failure was Nicolae's bid as an independent candidate in Romania's December parliamentary election, when he fell just 17 votes short of a winning a seat after being denied a recount. Nicolae had hoped to press for education reforms to enable access to basic schooling, and also for better management of public money.
"I want to be a better person, a little better every year if possible," he said. Jokingly, he added: "I don't want to be a saint, because saints tend to have a tragic end."