We always find topics for discussion with Ilja Hradecký.
First of all, he has been actively engaged in one of the OHF’s projects - Ordinary Life. It is one of the foundation’s social activities that this issue of Good News is focused on. And then, he has been engaged in social services (in the Naděje (Hope) organization that provides such services to people in need based on Christian principles) for 25 years, so he knows what this is all about very well. And last but not least - he can generalize his experience and demonstrate what needs to be changed in order to reach goals faster. That’s why it is good to listen to him!
Difficult life journey…
Where shall we start - childhood?
Let´s start after primary school: as I couldn't study secondary school, I decided to go –according to our family tradition – to a printing house where I learned to be a chemigraph. This profession doesn't exist anymore; however, I liked the job and worked there until 1989.
Stop in the 60s when you went to Paris.
Indeed, in 1968 in Paris I met and later married my first wife Vlastimila. In 1969, we decided to come back home mainly because of the family. But the moment we crossed the borders we knew that our decision was wrong. And we regretted it.
What happened after you returned home?
We couldn’t find jobs or a place to live so we moved to Nitra in Slovakia, where we got back on our feet. I worked at a printing house and my wife taught French at university and later also Czech at military school. We stayed in Nitra for 6 years and both our kids were born there. As time passed, State Security Service (StB) found us so we left.
We moved to Branná in Moravian border area where it was calmer and nobody cared about us. We had been teaching at primary school for two years and then moved to Jeseník. There I got a job in marketing department of a big company, while my wife was a teacher at a secondary school. In 1980, we both converted to Christianity. We got in touch with Christians from different churches and we took it seriously. We even organized summer camps for the Christian youth at our cottage.
Such activities probably weren’t unnoticed.
We got into a difficult situation mainly due to the director of the secondary school and her husband - regional secretary of the communist party. It was clear that we would have to move again, so we headed to Prague.
Are we talking about a year 1982?
Yes. I got back to printing job and my wife worked in the office of the Unitas Fratrum. Later she worked for the same printing house as me and then retired. After November 1989, we asked ourselves what to do next. We considered both entrepreneurship and charity work.
Why did you choose charity?
Because of our son who was 14 in November 1989 and who wrote and stuck posters about the Salvation Army in order to help them launch their activities in our country. Under his influence we decided to work for the Salvation Army. For the first few months we worked as volunteers. In August 1990, the influx of refugees from Romania led us to the establishment of Naděje organization. I wasn’t brave enough to launch a charity or social work on my own. I thought rationally that we do not have enough money, contacts, and personnel. Not to mention that it was something totally new we had no experience with.
About Naděje organization
How did it start?
It started with providing food to Romanian refugees at train stations. Then we had to find them accommodation in Prague and later in refugees’ camps Jabloneček u Mimoně and Bělá pod Bezdězem. And at that point we decided to start our own project. We started with our first facilities in Prague. We volunteered from August 1990 until April 1991. From our initial excitement grew an organization which expanded to 23 offices all over the Czech Republic. Number of programs increased as well as target groups, which later covered not only refugees but other groups of people in need, who we wanted to provide with quality social services.
What pushed you to help others?
Our main motive was the awareness that human misery doesn’t necessarily mean just material hardship, lack of food or homelessness. The deepest cause is lack of love, respect and understanding, together with problematic interpersonal relationships and loneliness. We believe that suffering originates in the inability to forgive and admit our own faults. And we believe in help and forgiveness that God offers to all of us through Jesus Christ.
You have been engaged in social work in Naděje for more than two decades. Do you use your experience to improve social services in general?
Together with Libor Prudký we tried to tackle the question of homelessness five years ago at Prague City Hall. Then we did the same at the Ministry of Work and Social Affairs, where I’ve been engaged not only in the issue of homelessness but in the Commission for Social Inclusion as well.
You are a member of the Advisory Board for the Ordinary Life program. What does it focus on?
This program provides grants to support social projects of those NGOs that offer social services to people living outside the main stream of “ordinary life” and help to include them back into society.
What kind of people are we talking about?
Homeless and jobless people, street children, abused women and children. Ordinary life program also supports organizations working with excluded Roma and other communities and young adults, who used to live in children's homes and reformatories.
How much money went to such purposes last year?
As the Advisory Board we go through applications and advise to the Board of Directors those that qualify. In 2014, the OHF supported 27 organizations with almost 2 million CZK. The OHF gave grant e.g. to the Salvation Army for their shelters, the Petrov association for work with Roma children, and also to Vzájemné soužití, the civic association, for their community centre equipment.
Do you sometimes worry about the refused applicants?
No, I don´t. We go through those applications twice in order to decide who really needs help. And then the Board of Directors has the final word.
“Target groups” do not exist
Could you somehow define the group of people in our country that need social help? Does it include poor people, socially weak people, abandoned children…?
You cannot say it like this. Each life is different, individual. There are really poor people who are happy and able to handle their lives. There are also those, who wouldn’t have to face problems, but they do. It’s about a combination of different factors and different destinies which cause that some people need help and others do not.
Based on your work in Naděje organization, what was the most wanted kind of social help?
There wasn’t one particular “target group”. In Naděje, and social services in general, there are diverse cases from handicapped people, homeless, seniors, abandoned children to excluded locations… Social help is needed since people are born, in fact even before, until the old age.
State lacks a system
To what extent should a state provide social services, and where is a place for NGOs?
It’s a state who is responsible for the social area. A state can order services from other subjects or provide them itself. The problem is that we have a social services act but a state does not have any system. The act does not address financing of social services, and it has changed at least 30 times in the past 25 years. Yes, it has changed even during one year! It makes strategic planning impossible, which is the major fault. No provider of social services can guarantee positively that he will provide the same services as this year also next year.
What’s the cause that this problem lasts for 25 years?
No matter what political party governs, nobody wants to set financing of social services as state mandatory expense. If social services belong to the system of mandatory expenses they would automatically be financed, which is currently not the case. The act clearly states that there is no entitlement to grants.
The reality therefore is…
… that any subject which fulfils the prescribed requirements can register as a provider of social services – this is its right. However, such registration does not ensure that it will receive a financial support.
It seems that in such situations the non-profit organizations remain the only hope for people in need to receive social support which is not financed by a state.
A state and NGOs, providers of social services, are not rivals. A state orders social services and the provider should provide them regardless whether it is an NGO or a governmental institution. However, it should be normal when a state orders something, then it pays for it.
Prevent the homelessness!
And what if the state doesn’t pay? What hope is left for anybody who got divorced and lost his home, then his job, and became homeless? Nobody would give a job to a dirty and unshaven person.
This is the problem.
You deal with homelessness, so what is your advice?
The Ministry has a concept that we have created with the aim to eliminate homelessness by 2020. To eliminate - means that one wouldn’t need to be homeless, however it doesn’t mean one will not. The concept is based on the idea of creating enough services, not only social services, but also medical services, housing, and others…
Poverty, which people living on the edge of society face, is not only material. People also suffer from a lack of respect, problematic interpersonal relations, feeling of exclusion, loneliness… How to help them?
Well, this is a big problem. Loss of human dignity and hope… After some time of being homeless one loses any motivation.
Is there a cure for such “disease”?
To prevent! Prevent them from becoming homeless. I am sure that the issue of homelessness is caused by neglecting of social work by municipalities. Till today you can hear: “We don’t know what to do with people who do not pay rent.” It is absurd that somebody owes hundreds of thousands for rent and there was no social worker coming to their home and dealing with this situation at the beginning. Social workers stay in their offices plus they also have to work on dog tags, waste and other things. So they do not have time for those who do not pay rent!
We lack social field work
So this is the problem?
Yes, there is the cause. We lack social fieldwork, community social work. It is more developed in the Anglo-Saxon world, where community fieldworkers take care of one particular region, in which they know all the people and their problems.
What keeps us from doing it?
I don’t know. Probably our infamous trying to save money no matter what. By moving people out of towns we stop the growing debt and therefore save money. On the other hand, municipalities will never get the money from the debtor back. And additional expenses then move to a state that needs to deal with homelessness.
Are you saying that we are trying to solve the outcomes but not the causes?
If we pay more attention to prevention, we wouldn’t have to search for solutions. And this is true not only in the case of homelessness but also other problems: violence, addiction, alcoholism, vandalism…
Do you know the way out?
In addition to the above mentioned community social work, municipalities should stop thinking like entrepreneurs and rather think like communities. Municipality is not only made of its mayor or the council but also community of citizens. Municipalities can save money by limiting investments, not people.
Family is the basis
Well-known truth is that family should be the foundation. Should be… many children still live without families, in social institutions that are not able - despite all efforts - to prepare them for life and these children lack basic family habits.
We have experience with children from children’s homes in Naděje organization, too. There they get clean clothes without even knowing what happened to the dirty ones. They get food without knowing how it was made. I remember a boy who put ten spoons of sugar in his tea because he didn’t know how tea is prepared in his children’s home.
For these children a Halfway House can be a good choice but we do not have enough of them. Can we offer them anything else?
There is another option - foster care and life in a family. We have the highest number of children living in children’s homes (with regard to size of our population). There has been improvement in the past years; foster care has changed. In the case of children’s homes it always depends how enlightened approach its director has.
We must admit that sometimes even a family is not a win.
Indeed. I’ve heard a mother swear at her child at a playground, using words I couldn't even repeat. Not even the mildest of them! Few years ago I was dealing with abuse of homeless people. When I was lecturing, I talked about a 16-year-old boy who kicked to death a 70-year-old homeless woman. A policeman familiar with this case attended the course. He said that the boy was raised that way by his family, he believed that homeless people are worthless and shouldn't live with us.
It is difficult to react. Can we please move from this sad topic to a more cheerful one? When you look at the work you’ve done, what makes you happy?
I’m very glad that my work was taken over by my young colleague so I can stay calm because Naděje stays in the right hands.
And what do you currently enjoy the most?
My three grandchildren!
So let them bring you joy and happiness for all of those people you’ve helped!