Saturday, November 07, 2015

Crisis, what Crisis? (Tom)

The origins of my Swart Donkey nickname came in part from a Contiki tour where the ANZACs were mispronouncing one of the other Saffas names. Jacques, we told them, sounded like Shark. He become Sharky. I had been called Donkey by my English village cricket team because of my loud appealing. With my poor Durban Boy Afrikaans, Jacques and I could speak in code. He became 'Die Wit Haai' and I was 'Die Swart Donkey'. Later at work, I had good banter with my first Movember Team Captain. Also faced with pronunciation issues around his name, 'Szychowski' sounds like 'She Hoff Ski'. So he became the Hoff. The Hoff was one of my favourite colleagues and we became good friends. He is one of the most positive people you will meet and a 'go to guy' in the office with an ability to figure out a practical solution rather than moan.

The Hoff (Top Left) & Me (Bottom Right)
You may also recognise Stephen (Bottom, 2nd from left)

Crisis, what Crisis?
by Tom Szychowski

I've been promising to write this post for Trev for what feels like an age and I'm finally getting it done! It got me thinking, why has it taken me so long and what it is that got me writing it now that stopped me before. It's not that I wasn't committed to it (I wanted to do it from the moment Trev asked me). And it's not like I didn't have the time (doesn't take that long to write a few hundred words). I think I became too attached to it and it stopped being a bit of fun and instead became a chore, and once it became that, well, I just kept putting it off (as you do with chores, right?). So here goes...

One thing that brings me a big sense of fulfilment in life is when I have a positive impact on others, be it in my family, my friends, my workplace or my community. After all, life is short and once you're 6 feet under, your financial wealth and possessions count for zilch, all that remains is the impression you have left on others. 

Two years ago, my wife and I spent some of the Christmas period volunteering at a homeless shelter in London as part of a scheme called 'Crisis at Christmas'. Crisis are one of the main homeless charities in London and each Christmas they provide 24/7 shelter in various spots around town, so that those normally sleeping rough on the streets can also enjoy a warm and fuzzy Crimbo like the rest of us! Each centre provides somewhere to sleep, hot meals, entertainment as well as a whole host of services such as hairdressing, dental care, job advice etc.

I didn't really know what to expect, I imagined I would just help out with whatever bits needed to be done around the centre (cleaning, tidying, serving food). I quickly found out that my Polish language skills were high in demand as there were quite a few Polish speaking guests at the centre who spoke little English. (There was a strict policy to refer to the homeless as "guests" as a sign of respect. I liked that.) I soon took myself off standard duties and started to build relationships with the Polish guests to see how I could help them.

I met a variety of characters; drug addicts, alcoholics, mental health sufferers etc. Some had been homeless for years, some only for a few months. Each had their own story, some more dramatic than others, each one somewhat heart-breaking. I was fascinated by each individual that I met and wondered how they could get into such a situation, after all they were all once little kids like the rest of us, running around with a world of possibility in front of them.

There was one guest in particular, Krzysztof, who really intrigued me. Polish, in his 50s, ex-wife and two sons back in Poland. He was different to the others. He wasn't resigned, he wasn't drunk. You could see the determination etched on his face; he wanted to prove to himself and to his family that he could win them back. He'd only been homeless for a few months and was still coming to terms with his predicament. He wanted my help in getting his paperwork sorted so that he could apply for state benefits (which he was entitled to) as well as looking for a job.

Our time together was always going to be short, but we managed to get the benefits sorted before we parted ways. I took his contact details and dropped him a line a few months later and was delighted to hear he had found a job and was back in permanent accommodation.

I'll never forget what he said to me, he thanked me and said "your father should be proud of you". I was moved. Personally, I think it was his steel that got him back on track, but I was glad that I contributed in some way, even if it was just being there as a social support during a difficult period.

I left that week at Crisis with mixed emotions, happy that I helped someone, grateful of my own situation but also sad knowing that the majority of the guests had to go back out to the streets with little hope of turning their situation around anytime soon. The biggest thing I learnt was that, if it wasn't for our support networks, we would all only be a few bad moves away from living on the streets.

I encourage everyone at least once in their life to volunteer at a shelter - both for the guests but also for yourself! It has certainly given me a sense of appreciation for the privileged situation I am in as well as the impetus to make more of an impact on those around me.

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