Since 2000 I have been working in the secondary school at the Youth Sociotherapy Center “SOS” Nr 1 in Warsaw, Poland. This was my concrete response to the call received while I was preparing for final vows in Rome: to live the mission among young people at risk due to exclusion from society and suffering from various forms of poverty.
The “SOS” Centre consists of a secondary school and a hostel for students who are not from Warsaw or who come from difficult family situations. In addition to academic courses, the Centre provides extra-curricular activities, clubs for different interests, learning assistance, socio-therapy, and psychotherapy. The education team would like to create a conducive environment that would provide specialized pedagogical and psychological assistance to young people who are burdened with severe problems. These include all forms of school phobias, neurosis, depression, anorexia, bulimia, and difficulties in coping with serious family situations, like alcoholism, mental illness, physical and sexual violence. At the same time, “SOS” is also for those who, despite their high level of intelligence, broad interests and special abilities, have specific learning disabilities, like developmental deficits or attention deficit disorder.
The Centre has been envisioned to be a small facility, as only such can provide a sense of security and ensure that no one would feel unnoticed. It provides care for everyone who comes through its doors. There is place for pregnant teenagers, for young people from different nations, cultures, and religions, as well as for young people struggling with various kinds of addictions. “SOS” also offers place for those who have completed treatment in addiction centres and need help in maintaining their new abstinent lifestyle.
During my 14 years of service at the Centre, I have taken on different roles. I have been an educator, a teacher of religion, and a family therapist. When I first began, there were no religion classes at the school, because students didn’t want to come; but I was asked by the headmaster to organize such classes. At the beginning only a handful students came to the classes. Among them were young people who declared themselves as unbelievers or who sought clear answers to whether God existed or not. Over the years, however, the number of students attending religious classes has increased. They come because they want to talk, to ask questions, and to discover God and their own identity in Him. They make me realize more and more that poverty also affects the spirit; and that emotional, mental and family problems influence young people’s image of God, oftentimes pushing them to spiritual rebellion. These young persons are often lost in the values of the world; they hold a prejudice against the Church; and they treat God as a distant Higher Power, some form of energy, that people turn to only to comfort themselves. They have taught me that it is better to share my life of faith than try to convince them with words. Deep down, these youngsters are in great need of authority and guidance, good relationships with adults, clear definition of boundaries and affection. Each day I learn to love them with God’s warm and strong Love.
In working with my students, I have come to the conclusion that I could not help young people if I do not touch the family from which they come. This is why I started working with the families of the youngsters entrusted to my care. Parents are often helpless and do not know how to deal with their children, and they need support and encouragement in their role as mother or father. It takes a long time to gain their trust. At the beginning they avoid contact, and deny their problems. These are the people who have heard from a number of institutions that they are “bad parents.” I have learned to reach out to what is the best in them, that is, their love and care for their children. The important thing is to help them solve life problems, such as finding a job or getting disability allowance or dealing with other unsettled issues. With time, they open up and start talking about and confronting their problems.
As for the young people, one major problem is the lack of motivation for any activity. I have discovered, however, that when I give them time and listen to them share about their joys and difficulties, this significantly affects their motivation and helps them stay faithful to their commitment. It also gives me great joy to offer them opportunities to become volunteers and to serve others in some way. These activities are varied and try to address their different interests — for example, going weekly to the orphanage, playing with the children there and helping them with their homework; participating in the “Great Orchestra for Christmas” in order to raise funds for hospitals; or, collecting materials for the shelter of dogs and the care of sick dogs. Through these engagements, they grow in sensitivity to the needs of others and they learn to work with each other.
Being in this mission has taught me to trust that God works in every human being and has a way of reaching everybody. Serving here in the Centre has helped me to believe that there is a possibility for development for those who are "excluded" by others and by themselves, and that God is able to find each person. Every day, in different ways, God shows me that everything that happens in these young lives has meaning. It is God who leads both them and me in this mission.
Perhaps the most important lesson that I have learnt so far is the understanding that daily simple acts of kindness and care are acts of love. This is the primary language, the language of the Word of God that nothing can replace — the Word of God, which is at the same time the easiest and the most difficult to proclaim.