In Poland, children do not freeze to death like the Russian bezprizorni. They are not shot at, like in South American favelas. They usually don’t fall as low as the children of Bahnhof Zoo. Occasionally, they are hungry, but they do not starve. Thus, when working with children, you rarely have to struggle for their existence – the purpose is rather to replace their current existence with a better life…
You make an appearance on a housing estate, in a yard, in the street. You spend half a day sitting on a bench. You stroll around, checking the place out. And the next day. And the next. Some time later, you are not the only watcher. You are being watched as well. From the next bench, from a gateway, from behind a curtain. Tension grows – until someone finally breaks the silence. A local senior citizen, usually. It’s enough then to steer the conversation in the right direction. The older guy will know which kids live in the street, and which of them are just getting some air. You can actually make out the courtyard hierarchy yourself.
You approach them, in daytime and in the open. A group rather than a solitary child. You say hi and introduce yourself. You are an outreach worker and will drop by once a week. Fancy a chat? If not, no problem. You will be back in a few days. Maybe then. Yes, your back is breaking under an enormously heavy skyrocket, but we really don’t have to talk about it today.
You are “Karol” or “Karolina”, and what you say to each other is “Good morning”, or “Good afternoon”. No “yo”, no “dude”, no “see you in hell”, no “babe”. No one will litter, smoke, drink, or hit anyone in your presence. No one should swear, either – but this is a lesson for later, you don’t want to discourage them. And one more thing. Even if you are in your twenties, with curly hair and a charming smile, “Karolina the outreach worker” is what you will remain to them. It would be cool if the guys knew that. It’s pointless to get yourself all worked up only to be disappointed.
The Minimum Plan
You are not out to save the world. You do what you can. Living in the streets is not the reason, it’s the result. Of household violence, possibly, or of a complete lack of interest, or of parents who cannot handle their own lives either. You cannot change that. But you can integrate the kids, for example. The older ones will stop bashing the younger ones. Or maybe they won’t, but the bashing will not be that bad. Someone will share their sandwiches. Or help a friend who overdid it on designer drugs. They will call an ambulance rather than just run away. You cut your losses. You show up once a week and give them a chance. One of the girls is being sexually abused, maybe, and wants to talk about it. Who will she talk to if not you?
In Poland, children do not freeze to death like the Russian bezprizorni. They are not shot at, like in South American favelas. They usually don’t fall as low as the children of Bahnhof Zoo. Occasionally, they are hungry, but they do not starve. Thus, when working with children, you rarely have to struggle for their existence – the purpose is rather to replace their current existence with a better life. You are there to give it meaning. To warn them of the danger. To give courage. To restore self-confidence. – “What is the point of you coming to see seeing us, we’re just street kids?”, asks a ten-year-old from the Cracow Nowa Huta district. Well, that’s exactly the point!
Better a Freak
The skyrocket travels around Nowa Huta by tram or on the backs of outreach workers of the New Centre Foundation (Fundacja Nowe Centrum). Two metres long, it has two straps and two modules. Every module conceals a chamber. Yet before the hidey-holes open, the rocket appears as if by magic in the street,
and just sits there for awhile. It attracts attention, communicating that something is about to happen, that certain courtyard rules are in place for the next three hours, that everything is clear and anyone can join in. Anyway, someone apprehending kids with a skyrocket on his or her back is probably no murderer or
paedophile with shady motives; they are a freak at worst. The adults visibly relax.
In the yard, you are not someone who drops by for a high-five once a week. You are someone who helps get life back on track. You have to get to know the kids. To find out whose mum brings clients in to turn tricks, whose presence at school is the exception rather than the rule, whose life is moderately settled, and whose is leaning toward the street and its decadence. But be careful with the questions. If you overdo it, they will shy away. You will become a probation officer, a welfare centre official, or the fuzz – the police. Less talking, more listening. Take notes once you’re back from the yard. And remember—you are their teacher, not an outdoor games animator. Though games are fun too, of course.
You can suggest a game. You spread the three-by-three canvas you brought in the skyrocket on the grass. You deal the special cards. Let the game begin. It is fast-moving and fun. Participants occasionally encounter “hidden” content. The image of a syringe, for example. It may be left unnoticed, but it may also lead to confidences being shared, about a drug problem at home, for instance, or the serious illness of a parent. You have to notice and come up with appropriate associations. But games are not only about a diagnosis, nor do they have to focus on difficult topics. The skyrocket also hides the “Continental Twister”, for example – a game designed by the Foundation to help kids learn the names of European countries and their capitals. “Transfusion” is an excuse to talk about health and practical exercises, in first aid, for instance.
You Are the Die
Games are also about excellent social training. Both failure and triumph have to be properly handled. You have to discuss rules, agree to accept them, and not break them. You are playing as well; in another game – whether you are the die or the pawn in the yard. Don’t act all surprised if one day, a youngster throws a sweet wrapper on the ground and refuses to pick it up, looking you straight in the eye. – “What’s this, we agreed we wouldn’t litter?” – “It is what it is,” – the little guy will say, “And what are you going to do?”You are going to do is nothing. You will stop the game and wait. The other kids aren’t going to pick the wrapper up either. Moving a few metres away, they will start whispering, pointing with their fingers, mocking. To add insult to injury, adults will come running – the parents, the aunts. They will yell at you that their children are not binmen and will not clean up. Some irascible toughie will spill the entire contents of a public dustbin right next to your foot—you are humiliating the kids, right? And actually, just fuck off and die. But you will not. You have to wait, and peacefully. You will not emerge
from any argument as the winner. If you leave before planned time, they will see you as running away. If you pick the wrapper up yourself, you will never be an authority to them again. You have to survive until the end of yard duty, calmly collect your stuff, say goodbye, and leave. Once you are back to the same Nowa Huta yard one week later, the kids will approach you themselves, mumbling an apology. And then you will know – you are the die.
The First Moment of Pride
Thanks to support offered by the Citizens for Democracy programme, the Umbrella Centre for Prevention and Social Education (Centrum Profilaktyki i Edukacji Społecznej “Parasol”) opened a day care centre for street children in Cracow’s Kazimierz district. Everyone was welcome; to join an activity or not. To have
something to eat, prepare a meal for others. To clean up a bit. Street children usually like order. They also like regular chores – which they will or will not do, just like other kids. Most importantly of all, however, they love a place of their own. Once they have such a place, they will be willing to go back to the street. Not because they have to, but because they develop an imperative to create. A need for a sense of influence and to show others they can do good as well. “They designed and created a play garden. We invited their parents, teachers, and neighbours to the opening,” says Marcin Drewniak of the Umbrella Centre. – “For the first time in their young lives, these ten, eleven and twelve-year olds felt proud of what they were doing. And they saw the same pride in the eyes of their family and friends. That is invaluable.”
The Pro Bono Publico Felony
Children from the Nowa Huta day care centre operated by the New Centre Foundation were proud as well. One day, they walked in with a loudspeaker. A very much needed loudspeaker – the old one was dead and gone. The problem was that they had nicked the device from a local electrical appliances supermarket. They were really surprised to learn that good intent is no excuse for theft. Now they know. They don’t steal things anymore.
Yes to Mistakes, No to Mocking
Theft befell the Umbrella day care centre as well. An instructor’s wallet went missing. While nobody was caught anyone red-handed, everyone knew who did it. The day care centre resident – of legal age already – was given an ultimatum: hand the wallet over, or we call the cops. He chose the cops, and served a short prison term. “A very sorry incident. But straying off for awhile is different to mocking the law and other community members. He could have simply given the wallet back,” Marcin Drewniak explains. “We are not only in service to the kids and young people here; first and foremost, we are in service to society. Providing for us, society expects that we in return will help young people understand the rules and act accordingly. Had we turned a blind eye, the guy would have learned that he can go unpunished, even having broken the law.”
The Reversed Maslow Pyramid
If ever you get to know street children, you will swiftly find that – however hungry they may be, however frozen and living in uncertainty—they are still children, full of curiosity about the world, aspirations, and dreams. It goes without saying that all these feelings are frequently hidden somewhere deep within. But they are there. Your job is just to help bring them out into the open. For example, the staff of the New Centre Foundation based in Nowa Huta take their charges to Cracow’s Old Town Market Square, showing them St. Mary’s Church and the Cloth Hall for the first time; youngsters are taken to the Wawel Castle, and shown old university buildings. What for? Isn’t it enough to feed them, and keep them warm? Possibly it is – but this is Cracow, a place where anyone can become a cardinal, or a Jagiellonian University professor, at the very least. If you do not know how to get to the Collegium Maius, the going gets more uphill. And street children have it uphill all the time anyway. “Outreach work addressing children – the work is hard and the responsibility huge, yet the joy and hope are an amazing payoff,” says Katarzyna Regucka, chairwoman of the New Centre Foundation and an outreach worker of just under 20 years.
It’s not what you think.
By Michał Henzler
Photo: the Umbrella Centre for Prevention and Social Education