Currently we’re in a pretty exciting time at Zest4Kidz as we are looking back at what’s been achieved in the past year as well as looking ahead into the future. These times of dreaming and planning are an essential part of any organization but knowing they will benefit children in some pretty desperate circumstances gets us pretty excited. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, we can end up dreaming things which, while awesome and good, we are actually no good at doing! So, as we dream we continually ask ourselves this grounding question: “What are we actually good at?”

Stuy took some time to explain this idea a little better in an interview on our work in Belarus last year.

“I just wasn’t expecting to see what I saw out there. You know, one of the first orphanages I saw in Belarus in 1995, it was minus twenty-five degrees, there were no panes of glass in the windows in those days, and the kids were eating off the floor. And I just came out of the place probably more angry than I’ve ever been in my entire life. The kids shouldn’t be treated that way. I said, ‘I can change this.’ Then we got involved and I just kept travelling out, kept going, kept going …

After that I travelled extensively in Eastern Europe so everywhere from the former Soviet Bloc, to Romania, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and even into the Middle East as well, working in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq … There’s certain places that really need help and then there’s certain places that are in absolute bits. I suppose what we did, rather than go by country, was we actually selected categories of kids, and so we had child prisoners, child prostitutes and child soldiers – that’s our gig, it’s what we do. For me they were really forgotten kids, they were kids who no one was helping and no one was working with and we said well we’ll step in.

“It’s very important to know what are we actually good at.”

My background is in psychotherapy and working with kids in Ireland with behavioural difficulties and with things like that, and I really wanted to try to help to see change in these kids’ lives so that they weren’t going back to the same things that got them in there in the first place. And I had worked in Ireland with the prison system, so I had some pretty successful programs that we had run which had seen prisoners recuperated, rehabilitated and back into society and being part of society in a positive way again. And I wanted to try and see if we could run something similar in Eastern Europe. We feel this is what we’re meant to be doing and not trying to be all things to all communities and all people.

I mean for us, I think as well it’s very important to know what are we actually good at. What do we do and do well? And for us we know what that is. You can end up having an organisation trying to be what they’re not and not do it very well and I think that can, long term, be more damaging.

I think it’s very good to have a coordinated effort going into a region or going into an area and finding out what others do there and therefore what can we do that’s different? More what’s our strengths that we can help with and can we work with another organisation who are in there? Maybe one who are in there helping to keep an orphanage heated and warm, but are the staff trained to work with young people? Because if the staff are happy, the kids are going to be happier.

“It’s about having a relationship with them and understanding their needs”

So how can we help them first of all to make their lives better and what can we do for them? First of all it’s about having a relationship with them and understanding their needs. It’s about developing that over a period of time, you’re not going to do it overnight. It’s about having constant contact, it’s about having backup programmes so if something goes wrong we’re there to help. It’s about being able to let the staff feel like they’re of worth, they’re cared for, and that they’ve got what it takes to be able to help the girls and the boys in these difficult institutions. It’s about sometimes seeing that the staff are just grown up kids who have been through the same system.

We’ve had pretty serious success in one of the girls’ prisons in Belarus, where they are not going back to the same things that got them in there. We work with them a year in advance of them leaving the prison and before they come out they’re given the skills and the tools that they need to basically be able to adapt to society again. And the way that we’ve gone about doing that has been good because we have worked ourselves with the girls in the prison, and developed a team of about ten girls who were previous prisoners who have left who are now the mentors to the girls who are in the prison.

And what I love now is that we’re seeing the fruit of the seeds that we sowed back then, which is that those girls felt a connection, love and that family environment and that they want to stay and be a part of it. So they have gone on, some of them have had very successful marriages and have had babies and now they’re still inputting into the girls in the prisons … Basically when you’re in the prison you think you have no worth, you think you’re useless, you think you have no place in society. So when they’re feeding back into those girls they’re doing it from a place saying I was here, I was here five years ago. And so that’s powerful.

“You need to ask what are your talents, what are you great at? What would you like to do with your life?”

You need to ask what are your talents, what are you great at? What would you like to do with your life? People want to do it for themselves. They want to have standing within their community and we’ve seen people just come alive in the different programmes that we’re involved with because they’ve got such high self-esteem for themselves because they’re doing it. They’ve got a job, they’re supplying the needs of their family, they feel good. If you just get handouts, what’s the point?

Irish people are great, but I think for many years, going into parts of Eastern Europe, we go in and we sing songs and we dance and we go around orphanages and we give out presents and then we leave. And that’s it – we’re gone. Happy Christmas and we leave. And I had a real problem with that – what about the rest of the year for these kids? It’s great that we can give them a Christmas gift and I’m sure they won’t get anything again; however, what about in January? What’s going to happen to them? Not only that, but what about this kid who’s not getting tucked in by anybody at bedtime and how’s their emotional needs and who loves them? Who tells them that they’re loved?

I think we can, as Irish people, think that we have the answers to Eastern European problems and we don’t. We think we know what to do to make things better and we don’t. The mistake we can make is go in and start handing out stuff all over the place thinking, ‘Let’s make their environment better, let’s make their houses look better, let’s bring them up to Irish standards’, and that’s not something that has to be done. Unfortunately communism has had a way of, you know, being a very serious de-motivator in these countries so, I mean, the Eastern bloc has got a grayness attached to it which communism has brought in. And in many cases it’s hard to lift that. So when I see our girls involved in uplifting and promoting and encouraging the younger girls in the prisons now in the same way we would have done, that’s what’s empowering, that’s what’s important.

A lot of it depends on our relationships, my personal relationship with them, my wife’s and our in-country workers and coordinators and how they get on with the governors and staff. They’re coming often from a background of the same difficulty as the kids. And I suppose we can forget about that and think it’s all about the kids; in actual fact, one of the assistant governors, who is a wonderful woman, was in a horrendous car crash and we were able to help her through the difficulties that she had, laid on her back for six months, you know? So quite often it’s relational, its developing a relationship so that you’re trusted to the extent that they allow us to do the work.

“We’re just trying to really let these kids know that they’re worth something, that they’re loved and cared for”

Why we do it is an important thing to address all the time, because I think quite often we can as Irish people … people want to help other people. We can do it because it makes us feel good or we can do it because we feel good and we just want to help other people – there’s a big difference. My philosophy has always been: if you feel full you naturally spill over into other peoples lives, and I’ve always wanted it to be that way, rather than people coming on trips just to get a feel-good factor, but that they’re full and they want to pass that on rather than the other way around. We’re just trying to really let these kids know that they’re worth something, that they’re loved and cared for, you know? Because they’re not being told that by family, they’re not being told that by many institutions, and we want to let them know that.”