In the last twenty-five years or so, Czechs have increasingly recognized the importance of giving to charity, not only for the sake of the society, but for themselves. Many people contribute to charity regularly, but at Christmas time the urge to help others and spare a thought for the less fortunate is stronger than ever. For this Christmas special I spoke to Pavla Vopeláková, a young woman whose whole life has revolved around charity, about her work for the Czech branch of the Salvation Army, some of the special charity projects linked to Christmas and in what way charity has enriched her own life.
“Christmas is always a busy time of the year, but it is also a special time of the year when we really want to help the people that we are looking after in the best possible way and we want to bring the spirit of Christmas to them as well. So it has been busy since October when we start making preparations. For instance, we ask children from our social institutions to draw what they would really, really like to get for Christmas. Then in November we collect about 250 wishes (drawings) and it is amazing even to see the pictures which we then put under a huge Christmas tree in a shopping mall. We light the tree with the coming of Advent and the people doing their Christmas shopping can pick up a picture, buy the present and we wrap it and deliver it to the child on Christmas day.”
So you make dreams come true…
“Yes, and it is wonderful to see the children’s shining eyes when they get what they really wanted.”
And what is the response of the public like? I think this is one of your most popular projects…
“It is one of the most popular, because it is for children and there is nothing better than seeing children’s shining eyes under the Christmas tree. And the response is brilliant. People stop by the tree and often they do not pick just one but sometimes as many as ten pictures – meaning they buy ten presents, and not only that, they also donate funds. They buy extra toys which we deliver to other children or we store them and have something ready for parents when their children have birthdays.”
And people engage their own children in this, don’t they?
“For homeless people Christmas is a time when they remember what it was like when they were children and the loneliness is suddenly even bigger.”
“Yes, they engage their own children. I do myself. We established this project seven years ago and when we first started my son was two, but even then we went out and selected a picture by a child of a similar age and we went and bought the present. Of course, it is always difficult for small children to go and choose something they would like themselves and then to give it away, but it became a tradition for us and we do it every year.”
Is it important to be innovative in creating these projects? Does it help engage people more than if you were just collecting money?
“I think it is important because there are too many people just collecting money or asking for money but when the general public can interact and when they can see how they are actually helping an individual – man, woman, mother, child or senior - then it is very good. We recently had an event with Global Geometry; they came up with this brilliant idea to wrap presents in second-hand clothing. Maybe people do not know that in the Czech Republic we recently opened two re-share stores, stores of the Salvation Army of second-hand clothing, but on a very high level. And the idea was that instead of wrapping Christmas presents in paper –the Czech Republic uses up 30,000 km of wrapping paper each year –we would wrap them in second-hand clothes. And in this way we are giving three presents – the present itself, then the wrapping, which is usually a shirt or T-shirt, and we are giving a present to the Planet because we are protecting the environment.”
I saw some of those presents and they were beautifully wrapped. I cannot imagine doing that myself –so you must have had help.
“Yes, it was the company that came up with the idea. It seemed like a pretty daring idea, but we thought, why not? People in the Czech Republic like to be innovative, they like seeing new ideas and this is actually a Japanese tradition in present wrapping. It is really quite easy, once you get the hang of it you can do it anytime, like when you can’t find the right wrapping paper.”
And do you also hand out food – like a special Christmas dinner or something like that?
“Yes, we try to make Christmas as normal as possible for these people, because for us it is the most joyful time of the year but for the people in our care, mostly homeless people, it is a time when they remember what it was like when they were children and the loneliness is suddenly even bigger than in the remaining 11 months of the year. So we try to bring a semblance of normality to their lives. On Christmas Eve they received the traditional Christmas meal of soup, fried carp and potato salad, we also bake Christmas cookies and receive Christmas cookies from different companies, but we also support them with Christmas food parcels, mainly from the national food collections which usually run in November across the country.”
It is obviously very important to give people a kind word as well. Many Czechs –when they see a homeless person – will give them change and walk on, thinking it is enough, but very few stop to chat, to ask - how are you doing or how do you come to be in this plight. Is it important to give them more than just the material things?
“The one thing that people always talk about is that they became invisible once they became homeless.”
“It is, it is and when we speak to the people who come to us the one thing that they always talk about is that they became invisible once they became homeless. Very often when we walk on the street and see a homeless person we cross the road or turn our eyes away so we do not see them. And this is something anyone can do –look at them, greet them, say Merry Christmas, give them a kind word and even a smile –that is enough to warm their hearts. But of course, we are a Christian organization so the message of Christmas –the Savior coming and being born to the world – that is what we try to get across as much as possible, because this is a time when everybody needs to hear the real meaning of Christmas.”
Do you involve children – have a choir or something to come and cheer up elderly people, within inter-generation solidarity, so to speak?
“Yes, we have different kindergartens coming with their children within our projects for the elderly, but we also have elderly people singing and visiting other elderly people, so yes, we do try to get children involved and different projects take place throughout December, music groups, we try to take clients to the theater or do something festive for them as well. And of course our Christmas programmes are always full of music, good food, laughter and good fun.”
In addition to good food and a bit of Christmas cheer, some people need a roof over their heads and some warmth. I understand it is possible to buy a night’s accommodation as a gift?
“Yes, this is a new project that we introduced last year –it is called Nocleženka in Czech –the cost is really symbolical, but it covers the cost of accommodation in our night shelters. So anyone can approach the Salvation Army and buy any number of these coupons that they can donate to homeless people they meet on the street.”
I understand there is also a special project called Run Czech 17 –can you explain how it works?
“We are a charity of Run Czech in the Czech Republic, which means that we can purchase entry numbers for the Prague Marathon – the half or full one or marathons in other cities – we charge a tiny bit extra which again goes to benefit our clients. So runners –if you hear me – if you are fit and want to be even fitter in 2017, please buy an entry number through the Salvation Army again. Thank you.”
Helping others gives one a very special feeling. Is there anything in the past that sticks in your mind? Maybe a moment where you helped someone and saw them joyful for a brief moment –that made you think this is something that I want to do, this is a field I want to engage in?
“There is one very strong moment. It was when I was 15, possibly 16 years old, and it is linked with the Salvation Army, although my work there was still marginal, I would come in to help out occasionally at the Salvation Army’s hostel. And once I came in and I had an orange. A plain orange, it was around Christmas time. I was peeling the orange and a homeless person came in. It was a young man – 20 or 25, I don’t know. I shared the orange with him and he started to cry. I was young –I didn’t know what to do, how to react and he explained that this was the first time ever someone had peeled and offered him an orange. He said he had grown up in an orphanage and had received oranges, but he had always peeled them himself. So the small act of peeling an orange and sharing it with him was a moment that was important for him, but even more important for me because I realized that it is the small things that matter – it is the small acts of kindness that anyone of us can do to make this world a little better. It may sound like a cliché, but it works!’’