Aureliusz Lezenski is building a nationwide system to assure young adults successful transition from institutional foster care to independent living, and working to shift the mentality of local communities responsible for educating and providing opportunities for them to become active citizens.
Aureliusz is empowering youth from foster care institutions and families to successfully transition from institutional care to independent living. He is doing so through a system of self-sustaining activities, separate from foster care institutions, to provide young adults with the necessary education for entering adult life. Through “Vehicles for Independence” and “Assistants for Independence,” young adults learn communication skills, practical knowledge like personal finance and computers, public speaking, make contacts with business entrepreneurs, and are provided with individual psychological support where needed. His program has been reshaped and today five Vehicles operate as autonomous centers. Each site has fifteen Robinsons. Since the beginning of the program in 2002, 250 to 300 Robinsons have become independent.
Aureliusz works within the community—with local municipality, business entrepreneurs, social workers and citizens—to persuade them to take responsibility for educating and supporting foster youth and provide them with the same opportunities as other children. Aureliusz proves it is in the community’s best interest to invest time in foster children who may otherwise become a burden to society—socially excluded, helpless, and dependent on social aid. Citizen members take ownership of his program and co-responsibility for its functioning, ensuring its financial and institutional stability.
Aureliusz often refers to the Robinson Crusoe story of solitude and abandonment. Foster youth struggle with the same feelings of abandonment, and unlike other children, do not have the pillar of support from immediate family. All participants in the program are ‘Robinsons.’ They are changing the stigma and developing into confident, entrepreneurial, and socially adjusted adults. Using existing legislation, Aureliusz advocates for national standards to provide systemic support for youth from foster institutions and creates incentives for others to invest in their potential. His advocacy efforts and media campaign will assure replication of the idea in other municipalities across the country and beyond.
There are nearly 22,000 children who for various reasons, are assigned by the state to orphanages and foster care institutions. Only a small percentage of them are ever received into foster families—the supply of homes is simply too limited. None of Poland’s 351 orphanages properly educate and develop youth to live independently. They also fall short in providing young adults with the skills and training they need to successfully transition into adult life.
Foster youth living in institutions often endure social exclusion strong enough to make independent living, working, and socializing difficult. They are less likely to tolerate failure, and more likely to become frustrated in relations with others. At the same time, their aspirations and ambitions are smaller when compared with other children. By spending most of their lives in institutions, surrounded by adults who provide them with food, clothing, and medical care, they become helpless and unable to cope with daily encounters such as shopping, going to a doctor, or communicating with others. Statistics show that 60 percent of homeless or addicted adult clients of social aid institutions were once pupils in foster care institutions.
Neither the state nor the citizen sector has developed effective programs to support young adults in their transition from foster care institutions to independent life. Existing legislation calls only for advisors to these young adults, and even this provision has not been implemented. The state does not provide for the full range of services and systematic approach that will create learning opportunities that enable foster youth to become full citizens in the society.
In 2002, to address the void of support for young adults transitioning from foster care institutions into adult life, Aureliusz created the Robinson Crusoe Foundation. In this same year, he and a group of friends organized the first summer camp for youth from foster homes. Aureliusz gathered forty youth, between 16 and 19 years, from six institutions all over Poland. The first Robinson Clubs were created the same year in Warsaw, but met resistance as they were perceived as competing with the orphanages. Some felt because the clubs were within the orphanages they only deepened the sense of seclusion and separation from the outside world, instead of mobilizing youth to step outside their environment.
Therefore, Aureliusz reformed the structure of the clubs and moved them outside of orphanages where youth from other foster care institutions could participate. With the change in location, the name also changed to Vehicles for Independence. These clubs are located in schools, community centers, and social aid centers. Each requires at least twelve young participants (Robinsons). Launched with the support of his Foundation’s two consultants; one of supervised the relationships with the local community—foster care institutions, social aid centers, and municipality—and also helped with program development and potential partners, while the other is responsible for maintaining contacts with the Foundation—in particular, progress reports and psychological supervision. It is mandatory that the Vehicle’s participants meet once every three weeks for a minimum of four hours. Participation in the Vehicle program is based on a contract signed by a Robinson and the consultant. For example, a Robinson may propose an activity that he/she is interested in—such as training to become a hairdresser, and the Foundation provides the funding for a training course and the hairdresser’s equipment. The Foundation might help a Robinson obtain a driver’s license in return for volunteering in a hospice, animal shelter, or other institutions where help is needed. There is a system of incentives (points called Robins) to reward Robinsons and assure sustainability.
Participation in the program lasts a minimum of one year. The Robinsons work on their social skills (interaction with others and building relationships with various partners such as the municipality or local business entrepreneurs) as well as practical skills to support their transitioning into adult life. Many develop computer skills, banking, and time management, to prepare for their first jobs or internships. Young Robinsons undergo communication training to learn how to speak with the police, government officials, or doctors. For the majority of the Robinsons’, the Vehicles are the first place they initiate contacts with external partners—adults, businesspeople, volunteers, and others who support Vehicle for Independence. The last important component of the Vehicle program is psychological support, provided on an individual basis to young Robinsons.
While the Vehicles for Independence work with groups of young adults, Aureliusz emphasizes the role of an Independence Assistant to provide individual support and guidance to the Robinsons. The Independence Assistant supports Robinsons for a minimum of three months up to one year, meeting at least once every two weeks on neutral ground. The Assistant helps each Robinson set his short-term goals based in part on the activities that the Foundation supports and also helps Robinsons make contact with potential employers. All the activities are organized with the legal guardian of the Robinson. The relationship between each Robinson and Assistant is based on a contract, assuring engagement and motivation of the young adult. Assistants are chosen using careful criteria, and many are contacts from Robinsons who graduated from the Vehicle. An increasing number of Assistants also come from the business community in the form of volunteers eager to teach teamwork, entrepreneurship, communication, and creativity.
In 2005 and 2006, Aureliusz focused largely on staff development and human resources management, building his team at Robinson Crusoe Foundation to over twenty-five people. Aureliusz emphasizes the role of the Board of Supervisors (supporting the program activities and consultations with Vehicles) and also the advisory Board of the Foundation, which oversees financial and institutional development. A book of standards provides guidance for new Vehicles for Independence—in 2007 eight vehicles operated across Poland. Two are located in Warsaw, the others in central and southern Poland (Lodz, Zawiercie, and Opole). Expectations are that eight to ten new vehicles will launch each year. There is a special focus on the most impoverished and marginalized areas and mechanisms for self-financing are being developed.
Aureliusz is strategic about spreading his idea: He develops the human resource base and then trains them to have the human capacity to replicate the model. In partnership with local aid centers, Aureliusz searches for staff from the community that can be trained to operate Vehicles for new Robinsons. Business entrepreneurs provide internships and offer practical experience as well as workshops on personal skills, presentation skills, interviewing with employers, and more. The cooperation is three months and then community leaders and others are invited to participate in a simulation game called “Island”, highlighting the importance of social engagement and the Vehicles. The community begins to identify with and eventually adopt the idea. Aureliusz envisions that in six to eight years the Vehicle model will be legislated and expand to every local municipality.
Aureliusz understands the need to change the mindset of society, since the current perception of foster youth is a significant obstacle in providing proper support. His approach is two-fold: On the community level, through social engagements with Robinsons; and the national level, with a media campaign to strengthen local work and excite communities to join the program. The media campaign in 2008 was an important tool in advocating for legal changes, but also spoke up for those needing attention and equal treatment. The problem of orphanages and foster institutions is dramatic in ex-soviet countries. Aureliusz will spread the model internationally—beginning in Eastern Europe.
Aureliusz grew up in a family of socially engaged journalists. His father was a founder of the Smile Order Association, which awards adults who believe and implement the notion of “children beyond everything.” Aureliusz was active in the Scout movement where he followed the typical path from Young Scout to Patrol Leader. He founded a school newspaper and published a book of poetry with his friends. During his first years in university, he became involved with the Solidarity movement and participated in students’ sit-downs in 1981. He printed underground leaflets, but was never interested in a career in politics.
Later, as a student of Polish language and literature, he enrolled in seminars on alternative education. In 1989 Aureliusz founded one of the first independent schools in Poland and set a new standard for a partnerships in the educational system. Aureliusz introduced pioneer education programs in entrepreneurship, outdoor nature and science, theater courses and programs on tolerance. He also paved the way for building partnerships between schools and citizen organizations. After ten years of running the school Aureliusz felt he had accomplished his mission. His model was copied by a number of schools and the education programs were adopted by teachers all over Poland. Upcoming reforms in the educational system and his personal life (Aureliusz became a father and needed to earn money for his living) prompted him to move to the corporate world. There, he was instrumental in developing the human resource management system for a large Polish bookshop network. The experience convinced him that he was most comfortable when able to think strategically. The human resource system was a success, but Aureliusz felt compelled to return to the social sector. He decided to set up his own business—training others and advising high-level executives on their personal development—and become involved in social work again.
In 2001, Aureliusz developed a program, Rainbow Bridge, directed towards youth from Bosnia, Croatia, and Herzegovina, to help them to overcome prejudices against each other and the traumatic experiences of war. Through the patronage of Poland’s First Lady his program was adopted in Kirgystan. Aureliusz wanted to work more closely with abandoned youth but received little support from institutions. He took it upon himself to launch the Robinson Crusoe Foundation to support youth in foster care institutions transition into adult life.