Poland glossary








manager of social welfare home




July 1999



Section 1
My narrator is a Manager of a Social Welfare Home that was flooded two years ago. The building is situated in a pleasant but as it turned out, treacherous place: the confluence of two rivers. She is a most agreeable and kind host and offered me coffee and biscuits. The office to which I was invited made a nice impression. Renovated after the flood, it was clean, bright, equipped with a computer. Music from the radio added to the atmosphere. I told her carefully about the aims of the project and the future exhibition: she gave me some pictures taken just after the flood, showing staff working on the aftermath.

It was a nice surprise when she asked to hear her voice in the headphones after the interview. I presented a bit of the recording, and she was laughing - surprised, because she could not recognise her own voice, and also a bit dissatisfied with speaking too fast. She explained her fast speech led her teachers at school to believe that she knew everything. At the end, and after considerable preparation, I took a picture of her.

She did not want this interview to come across as any kind of bragging, or boasting about her successes.

At the beginning of our conversation I would like you to tell me something about yourself. Where and when were you born?
I was born here, I graduated from secondary school and then the School of Welfare Workers in Wroclaw. At the moment I am additionally studying pedagogy of welfare work. I am married with two grown up sons: one is 21 and the other 15. I have worked in the Social Welfare Home for 26 years as a welfare worker.

What are your duties?
Most of all straight contact with the residents - all for them. All the things related to the residents belong to me: being in touch with their families, with the environment and with the staff here. I organise various trainings and chatty lectures. It is all done to create an atmosphere full of joy and love, to make residents feel safe and loved. That is what I think is most important in my job.

How do you like living in the mountain environment?
I must admit, that I like it here a lot, but as we go for holidays to the seaside, we often dream to find a possibility and a willing person to swap; we would gladly move to the north of Poland then. It might be the question of the air there, that seems to be softer, but mountain areas are also beautiful. We trek the mountains a lot, do some sightseeing - so I cannot grumble.
Section 2
If you left these areas, what would you miss the most?
I would happily move to the seaside, but on the other hand I am satisfied with life here. I somehow got used to living in a block of flats. What would I miss? I can hardly imagine life without these people, and I also would like to quit my often bike rides around the mountains(?).

Do you remember any other disasters except of the flood that took place two years ago?
No, and that is why it was a shock to me.

In what circumstances did the water come?
It happened quite rapidly and strangely - not to mention the fact that at the time I had the pleasure - if one can call it so - of standing in for the director. When I was at work in the morning, there was some water in the garden, but it disappeared later, and the level of the water in the river was not even so high. I left here at 17.30 and at 18.30 there was a phone call informing me that water was getting into the building. Before I got back there was no possibility of entering the building; water reached half of the height of the door. I contacted fire brigade; I had to undertake quick and precise decisions.
The phone was already out of order, there was no contact, there were only two nuns on duty, a nurse and a ward attendant sitting in the windows, waving white handkerchiefs; they were panicking, shouting... water was gushing. There was this one great roar of the water. I asked fire brigade to come and although they did, they were not able to evacuate the people or even do anything, because water was so high, that they could reach neither windows nor the door. Then I contacted the mayor who organised an amphibian tank for us. It came at 21.00 but it was totally unprepared for an evacuation of the residents. In the meantime I organised transport to pick up the residents: three men with Fords and one institutional car. After midnight we were carrying our pensioners to the front of the chapel, situated by the second welfare home building in Górna street. The army also helped with the evacuation. We were carrying elder ones together with the two nurses, the ward attendants, without light, without a lift. We placed 60 people in that other building, everywhere where it was only possible.
In the morning I went back to work, because the building was full of mud after the flood. Corridors, the kitchen, the laundry all not working. With a help of my husband, my family we were clearing away the outcome of the flood. On Thursday all the residents were brought back here and everything started functioning as it should: laundry worked, as well as the kitchen, there were not any poisoning, water was all right.

Were there any signals? Did anybody try to warn that so much water was coming?
No, nobody warned us and it was shocking for us, because as I mentioned the water was in the garden on Monday; they probably evacuated people in Wilkanów. I personally contacted the fire brigade and nobody told us that the real danger was about to happen in the evening. We could have evacuated the dwellers during the day, by daylight, there was still electric current, the lift was working. Such a situation did happen the following week: we were informed by the army, or those people that were watching the dyke in Miedzygórze - as it turned out it was all unnecessary. They said that there was a danger of such a wave (flood) coming in the evening: not waiting for anything, we evacuated all the dwellers to the other building in Górna street, but nothing happened.
Section 3
What is the first thought when one sees lots of water round him or her?
At such a moment, man does not really think much. You do not care about yourself and what can happen to you. Those people are really important and one does his or her best to rescue them. It thinks for itself (“your brain takes over” “you’re on automatic pilot”), and one does everything in a spontaneous way. Well, today, as I am telling the story, I keep wondering how was I able to do so much by myself.

Did inhabitants of the area, neighbours join the rescue operation?
I think that they were all shocked, they did not help us, only some of the private shopkeepers and the army, and obviously all the workers were organised.

What did you rescue in the first place?
Man is the most important. I could not watch them waving their white handkerchiefs. I was about to cry and shout and all the others, but I could not help them.

Were you out of the building?
I already could not get inside. When I saw that water I rushed home and I kept phoning. Then I went to the other building in Górna Street; water was in the yard. It was really high; water stood downstairs the building. But fire brigade went there and dug a ditch so the water changed direction. It did not come from the river, but from the fields.

Let us go back to the already mentioned matter. You said that the people were rescued in the first place, what was rescued later?
There were efforts from that very morning to get out the Ford that was parked in Florianska street, and that street had already been flooded, so there were not any chances of rescuing it. And that car was new, and it was a real joy for the residents, because they had never had such car - that could be used to go for trips or to the hospital. I must admit that I kept calling all possible institutions asking them to help us with the car. Unfortunately nobody wanted to agree - even fire brigade. Quite by an accident a man from the street that owned an excavator, helped us to get the car out. The other thing was a new computer installed in the office. So we saved the computer - the table had to be fixed, but it also was saved. All other things had to be left there.

Do you keep any sights or events in your mind?
Surely there are lots of such things, one can hardly remember it offhand. After some time of thinking carefully. The water was the most scary, the water that formed here between those two buildings. Water that overflowed the river was flowing into another one. And our building was kind of an island in the middle of the great sea. It was one big water. Really scary.
Section 4
What level did the water reach?
It was almost up to the first floor. The girls were about to move to the second floor. There were only two dry steps. Well, it was a real terrifying view. The biggest satisfaction to me was to be a help to those people. As they were carried in the car, I was receiving them, the rain was pouring heavily, they were tired, we were tired as well. And the only joy of these people was to hold my hand. It was so endearing. The effort was worth it.

And how can you explain disasters of this kind?
[She laughs] I do not belong to this kind of people that would keep remembering it and thinking it over. Lots has been said about it - it can be caused by the changes of the weather, or any other situations. That is what I think - more of natural type; although we live for quite long time we saw it for the first time. It was something strange, unexpected, so fast and so rapid. One could not prepare for it.

And what did the residents say? How did they get through it? How did they interpret the disaster?
All were scared by the roar of the water, the roar was scary. But they did not talk much about whether it was a kind of punishment or not. The elder mentioned the water that came here in the 30s. But there was not much talking, because the staff explained all to them, so they all felt safe and they were not getting too excited; they did not talk about it much. Over, it was over. They were happy that all was OK; nobody died, nothing serious happened, they came back safe.

There were some rumours going on that three people died because of strong emotions. How was it in fact?
Not a single person died. Nobody was hurt. [People in the area claimed that the dwellers were carried by an amphibian tank, which my narrator denied]
Absolutely no amphibian tank had been used. One of the nuns who was present here during the flood died half a year later. But one can hardly associate that with the event.

What did this situation reveal as different to everyday life?
For me - as I have mentioned, I love people very much and I would do everything for them - I could see the wonderful cooperation of the staff with the residents. I was surprised that the girls that were supposed to start their work at 19.00 - although the water was really high - they went to their work... One of them almost drowned, because the water pushed the door with such strength, that if it were not for the other colleague, she would have been snatched by the water. I was not left alone, and during the next days we worked for 24 hours per day.

What was the atmosphere like among the staff, working people?
It is a wonderful thing. It was a marvellous, great atmosphere.

How did the support from the authorities, or other institutions responsible for the help, seem?
I must admit that there were lots of people calling, perhaps I was too humble in it, but I had money from our regional welfare fund. Mrs Figus in charge of it, was at our disposal any time. I did not want much help from people, who could help all the poor flood victims from area of Goworów, Wilkanów and others. I must confess that I let our car deliver things to those areas. We took some minor things from the local priest, something to eat, but in fact we did not have to make use of the help we were offered. City council helped a lot and I am very grateful for it.
Section 5
Which of the help was the most precious to you?
In my opinion, I was pleased the most with the help of the staff. They were simply great; nobody cared for the time or anything, whether it was midnight or 4.00 in the morning. For example our stoker (boiler man?) got all soaked, but he did not think about it, because he was carrying the dwellers to Górna street and back. Despite the hard work and the tragedy all were smiling, and it was the most important to me. It was also nice to receive offers of further help from unknown people. They were all kind as well as sympathetic.

Where there any difficulties with supply of water, food and clothes immediately after the flood?
No, we did everything on our own. It all happened on Monday and by Thursday we were all brought back here. We did not lack anything. The dwellers slept on the mattresses on the floor, but we were together; they were happy, loved and smiling; nothing dangerous was happening. They had a chance of meeting the others from Górna Street. There is a group of lying (bedridden) residents that never leave the house. I think, that when people are kind it is possible to survive all the worst moments. The sad thing is, that there is not enough kindness in everyday life.

One can gather, from what you are saying, that psychological help or therapy was not necessary.
We played the role of the best psychologist, because they trust us the most and we were with them. The touch of my hand, my smile was enough for them: Oh here you are Mrs Renia. There were perhaps two out of 35 people in the other house that objected to some extra residents brought to their rooms. But generally all were accepted with kindness.

Is there anything else that you would like to add or a question worth mentioning in our conversation?
One could say a lot immediately after the flood. It was a kind of test for us. Throughout many years of ordinary, smooth work nothing like that happened. And suddenly there comes this moment when one had to undertake decisions quickly; any type, but they must be the right ones.

So let us talk about the residents of Social Welfare Home: what kind of people are they, what kind of families do they come from etc?
It is a group of people of various ages - from 30-something to 90-something. They come from various environments, they have various diseases, there are some healthy ones but [also] older ones with dementia, sclerosis, there are people with multiple sclerosis. After some injuries of the spine. They have special manual training (physiotherapy?) of which some do make use. They make wonderful little castles, houses, paintings, pillows. There is a rehabilitation that they also make use of.
It seems to me that they have a kind of a home life. They are allowed to do what they want. We do not force them to anything. We try to offer, but nothing is obligatory. If somebody wants, he or she takes part in the therapy; if not they spend time as they like. Lots of the things are not necessarily done on schedule, that they would have to do something at certain time. We do not do such things. We let the resident feel that it is his or her home, so they are not forced to do what either we or a group say. At the beginning I mentioned that kindness on our side is vital. I think that the calm of the staff, smiles on their faces, bring lots of joy to the residents.
Section 6
And how did the closest relatives react to the news that their mothers, fathers and grandmothers were in danger?
Compared to the situation of the whole country, not many people were interested about their families - and although I did not mention it at the beginning we called all the families whose relatives stay with us, to bring them home. Only one person refused. Try to imagine the situation when the son refused taking his mother home, because he wanted her to stay with us. And the others, if only were asked, took their relatives home not to let them sleep on those mattresses. But generally those people did not offer any help.

For sure a nice atmosphere and a kind staff brings a lot, but it will never replace real family. How often are the dwellers seen by their relatives?
It depends. We invite and say that our home is open 24 hours a day. Anybody can come any time. They come very often to pick the money but we also accept that. Perhaps it is buying feeling, because the residents get the rest of their pension 30% and their children often come to take that money. It at least gives a possibility of seeing each other; so let it be. I have generally noticed - through 26 years of my work - that nowadays people come most often to see their relatives. There used to be times when nobody was coming. Even when somebody died, sending the information I had to explain that we pay for the funeral, so they would not have to worry for the expenses. If I had not done it, nobody would have come.

Can you see any other changes in the infrastructure of the home?
There was a time when we had one building, later we got the other one. At the moment we reduced the number of dwellers to 85, because we loosen (?) the rooms. Now there are more single and double rooms. I think that the situation with the sending to the home has changed. In the former times everybody was welcomed. Now, when we have the possibility of doing our job in people’s houses, we leave them there [a phone rings]. It surely has some advantages - an older person remains in his or her environment - and secondly the costs are much lower than keeping the person in Social Welfare Home. Because at that moment maintenance of one resident costs 1,600 zlotys. That is a lot of money.
Generally in the whole country the attitude towards the disabled has changed. The home used to be closed and isolated from the environment. At the moment, a lot is done to open it to society. We go out with our residents. We go for holidays and trips with them. Some time ago when we went with a wheelchair - I remember such trip to the basilica in Wambierzyce - all people around were staring at us. Now nobody pays attention. Our residents go in the streets to the villages, they manage well. They get married and that is not a sensation. I think that it is right, because they are the same people as us. Let them be happy with every day of their life, let it be happy. So there are real, major changes here.
Section 7
Did the appearance of the Social Welfare Home change?
Nuns used to work here immediately after the War; since 1946, but this home has always belonged to the state - they only worked here. They did not do anything connected with the farming, a separate worker was employed for it. But then the time came when they started to liquidate all state farms - first of all because they did not bring enough profits, but there were also such rules. It surely was a convenience to the residents, because they had access to fresh meat all the time. When there used to be coupons for meat we did not have such problems. We had our own fresh meat. Pigs used to be kept, there were times when there were 40, 60 of them, much earlier before
[When] I started working here there used to be a horse that was used to bring rest of food from the hospital. There was a farm in Florianska street, a pigsty, a field was there, tractors. I personally remember when I took part in hay [making], I picked potatoes. I would be sorry to part with the home. I treat it almost like my family home.
There used to be a very nice resident, who used to help us, he used to feed the pigs, he had his dog and used to go to the field with us, a very nice person. There is a garden behind the house, and the dwellers are allowed to go there, and additionally there are some vegetables there, so we do not have to spend money. We have fresh vegetables. Nuns used to take care of it, now there is a person responsible for it.

What would you do to improve life of the dwellers of the home?
For sure it is important to have a nice apartment, but after 26 years of my work here I do not think that it is the most important. If I had money I would have done it for them, but lots of heart and a smile are the thing I would give them in the first place. I wish the staff were always open and kind to them. That is why I think that the manager is responsible for creating an atmosphere where the staff smile, [and are] relaxed because their calm influences the residents. That is the dream of my entire work to create such conditions to make the residents happy, at least a little bit. The home is called a home in a wonderful way, and we do our best to make it one, but it is not their own home - that is the truth. They dream of their own family home.

Thank you for the interview.