By launching a network of adult education programs, collectively called the Kofoed School, Barbara Sadowska is helping formerly homeless people gain job skills, build self-reliance, and regain dignity and confidence.
The New Idea
Barbara started the Kofoed School to help adults whose lives have been shaped by homelessness, unemployment, and, in many cases, chemical dependence. By treating participants as partners rather than patients, she enables them to see a hopeful, productive future and contribute to the school's sustainability and outreach as they recover. She combines therapy with work and professional training so that participants develop a sense of belonging, aquire concrete skills, and emerge as productive citizens, free of chemical dependency, committed to confronting challenges in their own lives and in their immediate communities. Eventually, participants assume roles in the Kofoed School as mentors and teachers of newcomers, many of whom find themselves in desperate life situations. Beyond education and therapy, the school offers long-term housing, legal aid for people facing eviction, and lobbying and advocacy for the legal rights of homeless and unemployed people.
Unemployment and homelessness in Poland have reached crisis proportions. Since the mid-nineties, unemployment has risen dramatically to 16 percent in 2000, with unemployment in some rural areas as high as 60 percent. Many who are unemployed are also homeless. With no job and no place to live, people are alone and in despair; many develop a chemical dependency on alcohol or other drugs. Lack of education contributes to high unemployment. Except for retaining an obligatory seven years of formal education, the Polish government has done little to keep children in school or improve their education. Existing laws and regulations that govern schools offer little support to those who are poorest and most in need of education. Moreover, there are no effective, long-term solutions engineered by national and local governments that significantly increase opportunities for students from poor families.
Barbara's strategy has its origin with the Barka Foundation in Poland. In 1997, Barka secured several abandoned buildings in a very poor part of Poznan. Whereas Barka is a place to stay and a community to live in, similar to an extended family, Barbara's Kofoed School provides added structure through mentoring and collaboration among participants. Barbara describes the Kofoed School as "a school that is not a formal place for education; instead, it is a place of development that ends stagnation and creates a beginning for a new professional and family life."She started with a small group of formerly homeless people, who became the first "educators" in her school. With publicity and restoration of the building, the Kofoed School became broadly known as the only place where poor people could obtain medical services and social aid in exchange for their work.
In 1998, the school received substantial support from a Danish organization in the form of machines, tools and equipment for the workshops. Barbara then gathered volunteers, retired teachers, and Barka residents to create a program of education combined with professional work. She discovered that many retired teachers remain willing and eager to teach, although at the Kofoed School they encounter a very different type of student and learning process. One participant explains what motivates him to participate, saying that "I learn because I can see how my life is changing."In addition, Barbara has created a range of other services at the School, including a kindergarten and an in-patient medical clinic, staffed by a volunteer dentist. Using donated products, home appliances, and clothes, Barbara created two second-hand shops that generate income for the school and provide good quality, inexpensive products for people in need. Responsibility for the design and implementation of programs was assigned to school alumni, who became mentors and teachers for the newcomers. Many of them currently conduct workshops and therapy meetings for members of the community.
The School has been widely promoted by the media, by television and by word-of-mouth. By 2000, the Kofoed School had accepted about six thousand people. From October 2000 to March 2001, more than fourteen hundred people registered in the "Social Emergency" program. Strong lobbying for legal rights, coupled with publicity, has encouraged business people and foundations to take a closer look at the school. Kofoed School "graduates" are in demand, receiving inquires and job offers from major companies. They are appreciated for their skills and quality of work. In 2000, the school bought the technology to build a specific type of wooden house. Barbara expects the first families of the School to move into their own houses by the end of 2001. To strengthen and spread solutions in low-cost housing, Barbara is cooperating with Habitat for Humanity.
Because unemployment is a huge and growing problem for many of Poland's neighbors, Barbara hosts representatives from organizations in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. They visit the school, observing the methods of therapy, then return home to introduce Barbara's solutions in their regions. Each year, the school participates in the World Day of Resistance Against Poverty where Barbara's school is presented as a model for assisting homeless, destitute people in other parts of the world. Barbara is establishing another two schools in Drezdenko (in a northwestern part of Poland) and in Nysa (in southern Poland). Local governments have given her several buildings and the teachers from the Kofoed School will help launch the new schools. Barbara hopes that the new schools will accept as many as three hundred people each in their first years of operation. In a year's time there will be more than thirty-five hundred people in the program. Within the decade, Barbara sees ten new schools established throughout Poland serving ten thousand people in need.
Barbara has always been drawn to helping others less fortunate than she. As a little girl, she stole eggs from her mother's chickens and offered them to poor families in her neighborhood. Later on, she began thinking about how to help elderly people who lacked families to care for them. She talked to them on the tram or train and learned about their needs. She then gathered a group of friends and organized visits to the homes of elderly people to help them with their daily tasks. During her university years, Barbara studied psychology and began to address poverty and its psychological effects in her own community. She organized patients, read books to them, and took them to bonfires and on recreational trips.