Ask the question
May 26, 2011By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
I brought flowers. The bouquet, although splendid in color, paled in comparison to the enormous gratitude I felt. The woman who sat across from me a decade ago was a nationally regarded expert on domestic violence. She established one of Poland’s first crisis centers, serving individuals traumatized by abuse.
Poland’s domestic violence prevention movement surfaced after the August 1989 collapse of communism. Under the old regime, family violence was a topic swept under the rug. By 2001, this burgeoning democracy hosted a network of shelters, concentrated in urban areas. Dr. Wanda Badura-Madej was at the forefront of this public policy shift.
After reading an article in the “New York Times” about shelters in Poland, I wondered how my volunteer work in Vermont — answering a hotline, counseling women on safety planning, advocating for legislative changes — might translate overseas.
I made a funny sort of pitch to my husband: “What if you took a leave from work … maybe we could spend a few months in Poland … maybe I could volunteer … you could be Aleksandra’s (our then-preschooler) primary care giver.”
My husband thought about it a moment and said, “Why don’t you research it?”
I started quietly investigating the possibility. A friend, a social work professor at the University of Vermont, connected me with a Polish sociologist at Rutgers University who directed me to programs in Warsaw and Cracow. I zeroed in on Cracow, my home for two years when I was an exchange student. My cousin Jacek assumed the task of finding us a three-month apartment rental. My husband formally requested a leave. We located an international preschool our daughter could attend.
Two domestic violence prevention programs operated in Cracow. I drafted a letter to the directors, detailing my volunteer experience. I expressed a strong desire to learn about Poland’s efforts to counter family violence.
I asked the question: “Can I volunteer within your organization?”
Dropping the letters into a mail receptacle, I realized I might be rejected or utterly ignored. Unless a solid connection was made, all bets were off. An email arrived from Dr. Badura-Madej indicating she’d take me on as a volunteer. We left in March 2001, toting clothes, toys, and a nebulizer with adaptor for our then-asthmatic daughter, and a pile of Dr. Seuss picture books.
I still remember my first day at the shelter. Standing outside the secure facility translating various labels by a row of buzzers, I wondered, “Which button do I push? Shelter? Administration? Directorship?”
I hesitated, thinking, “What have I got myself into now? Can I really do this? Is my Polish good enough?”
I pressed the button for administration, announcing my appointment with Dr. Badura-Madej. Ascending two flights of stairs, I encountered a receptionist who invited me to take a seat.
Dr. Badura-Madej, a middle-aged woman, approached me with a broad smile. She invited me into her high-ceilinged office and, demonstrating true Polish hospitality, offered a cup of tea. She seemed intrigued by my desire to volunteer. I explained it was about broadening perspective on domestic violence. I also felt I had a debt to pay for scholarship assistance received years ago, allowing my studies at Cracow’s Jagiellonian University.
Dr. Badura-Madej prepared a comprehensive training schedule. I would read literature, observe support groups, spend time in a shelter, and consult with social work and psychological staff. Grasping the workings of the organization served as precursor to direct service.
“I want you to know,” Dr. Badura-Madej offered, “I’m here to help if you, or your husband and daughter, encounter any problems during your stay.” Her caring nature extended throughout my three month stint.
I played with kids in the shelter, singing loosely translated versions of “Itsy, Bitsy Spider.” I listened to women in support groups carefully plotting steps to live lives free of violence. I met Kamil, a 10-year-old boy, who told me he liked the shelter because “there’s peace and quiet and yogurt on Tuesdays.” I met wonderful, dedicated professionals who took the time to share expertise. Dr. Badura-Madej invited me to present perspectives on domestic violence prevention work in the U.S. to her staff and students.
Three short months later, it was time to say goodbye. Our family’s adventure proved life-changing, for each of us.
After presenting Dr. Badura-Madej the flowers, we shared another cup of tea in her office. I started to cry as I tried to convey how powerful the experience had been. I learned so much.
Dr. Badura-Madej smiled. She began fiddling with her necklace, gently slipping off its polished quartz pendant. She slid the translucent stone across the table towards me.
“This is for you,” she said.
I accepted the gift, an expression of her kind and open heart. I had one burning question for my mentor, a pioneering advocate for Poland’s abused women and children: “Why did you first become involved in domestic violence prevention?”
She smiled and said, “Shortly after communism ended, President Lech Walesa’s government organized a national conference to consider social problems. A former colleague who emigrated to the West presented a paper on domestic violence. The topic sounded intriguingly egzotyczn (exotic) and I decided to pursue it.”
As summer approaches with youth opportunities to work and volunteer, I’m reminded that it’s important to teach our children to ask the question: “Does the possibility exist?” Sometimes, it does. Sometimes, these possibilities change our lives.