My interview with Pavel Novák, head of Diaconia’s low-threshold clubs in Jablonec nad Nisou, took place on-line, like most things do during these difficult times. However, despite not meeting in person, we did get to see and hear each other, and our meeting made me feel quite certain that Pavel Novák was the right man for this job. I’m sure the Roma people, “his Gypsies”, trust him.
When the almost forty-year-old Pavel Novák graduated from the Jan Evangelista Purkyně Pedagogical Faculty in Ústí nad Labem (previously having studied the Semily high school), he immediately joined the ranks of the ECCB Diaconia’s employees. He never started work in the field he studied. Pavel Novák and his family live in Vysoké nad Jizerou, he has three children aged six, five and three, named Vilemína, Hubert and Felix. He says they gave their children interesting names to contrast with the ordinary surname.
Did you ever consider becoming a teacher at all?
I knew I wanted to work with young people, but I didn’t manage to find a job as a teacher anywhere near my home. And as it happened, in 2009, Diaconia opened a new low-threshold centre for children and youth in Jablonec, I was intrigued. And they hired me.
As a teacher, with no experience for that matter, don’t you need to go though some training before you start working at a social facility? You didn’t need to pass any exams?
It is true that formally, I wouldn’t actually be allowed to be performing the job of a social worker. I had to take a social worker retraining programme, organised by the Czech Streetwork association back then. The programme focused on working at low-threshold facilities and taught me a lot of useful information. For example, I learned how to position clients :-).
At Diaconia, you are manager of the club. Does that mean that you spend most of your time on office work, or do you also get to be with the kids?
I do both, but I certainly spend more time with the clients. I am the manager of two low-threshold clubs and at the same time I am a contact worker for a club named Kruháč.
The topic of this issue of the Bulletin is “Hope”. It is a word we often use and talk about, but can it actually help us in real life? Can it support and carry us? Is it the same thing as meaningfulness?
I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but I do believe that you couldn’t do this job without the feeling of hope; I really do consider it a basic prerequisite. Proof? Throughout the course of the eleven years that I’ve worked here, a number of colleagues came and went. They came speaking about their will to help, but this will dried up after some time – and they left. Others, in the meantime, did not lose their will. It is the framework of hope that gave them the power to keep going. I should probably add that one must be a bit of a “fool” not to give up.
What do you mean?
On a daily basis, my hopes are frustrated in one way or another. The plans I make don’t work out; people that we’ve been helping for years and whom we considered “hopeful cases” disappear who knows where… That’s what I mean when I say you need to be a bit of a fool. Your hope must be unattached, independent, it needs to stand over and above all else.
Having mentioned this context, how do you feel at work? What is it like, living like a “fool”?
It’s actually quite good. You are never bored, the job is always a bit of an adventure. The young people we work with are very specific personalities and their behaviour is often surprising. And because of how they act and who they are, they often get into trouble.
What does your regular working day look like?
First of all, my usual day has rather unusual working hours: we start at 10 and finish at 6:30 pm. I am not very happy about that, as I get home quite late. In the morning, I do administrative work – there’s plenty of it – individual plans, contracts, preparation and so on. Then from 1 to 6, our clients arrive. We usually have about thirty per day.
Can you tell me what sort of things happen during the afternoon?
It depends on the clients’ age. In terms of legislation, we have a very wide age limit: from six to twenty-six. However, most clients are under 20. They are Roma children and youth. We offer a good alternative to them spending their free time in the street. The younger ones seek entertainment. You need to get them intrigued, otherwise they wouldn’t come. Mind you, we actually help them with their schoolwork. The older ones usually have a specific issue they want to discuss. What I find alarming is that in the last approximately three years, we have had increasing numbers of people that are facing existential problems in spite of their very young age. They are often between 18 and 20… We accompany them when they are seeing authorities, we help them find a job, a place to live, we discuss their personal issues. In addition to that, we also do fieldwork, directly in the streets.
Working in the streets… how do people feel about this?
As I said, we are seen as somewhat crazy. However in the places where we work, people are familiar with our activities and they are used to us being around. We need to stick to the hope that there is meaning in what we do, even though it can look a bit foolish sometimes. When working in the streets, we sometimes bump into somebody we already know and lost track of at some point. Another benefit is that this a form of screening – actively searching for potential clients. I think I can say we are quite good at this: we are not intrusive, I suppose people can somehow relate to us – judging by the fact that they tend to like us. We already have our methods on how to behave in order not to look like street vendors or guys that surprise you with aggressive offers.
How are you dealing with the current situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Things are a bit upside down, our clients come in small groups or individually. As far as fieldwork is concerned, our screening activities have partially moved to social networks. You could say the activities that would normally be taking place on the street or in our club are currently happening on Facebook.
You seem to enjoy your work for the most part, holding on to your “hope in spite of everything”. Is there anything that has the potential to shake this hope from time to time?
For example, it is not rare that something disappears in our centre. Somebody steals it, to put it plain and simple. That is something we need to count on. Usually, the culprit is a new client. Or somebody who gets into really big trouble. Sometimes, this is done by someone who wants to take revenge.
Why would they want to take revenge?
There are certain things that our kids enjoy, but we also require that they stick to some rules, which is not as much fun and it is often something they had not been confronted with before. When they don’t respect these, there are various sanctions that follow. For example, they may be banned from entering the club – for a day, sometimes for a longer period of time. So they get angry and want to punish us… and they grab something as they leave. How do we find out who did it? Often, the culprit stops coming to the club from that day on. However, we don’t take these things too seriously. These people often have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep. So really, this doesn’t get my hope shaken all that much.
If this hope is over and above us, independent, isn’t it also a bit theoretical? Does it show in any specific, tangible ways? Do you get praised sometimes? Are there any visible successes?
There certainly are. The kids do give us a certain form of feedback; it isn’t necessarily praise, but they remind me, for example, “Pavel, I learned this from you”, which would please anybody. It’s like a spice, without which your food would be dull. And once again, I must bring up the topic of foolishness: things don’t work out forty times in a row, but when the 41st person comes, I don’t say to myself that the same scenario will repeat and that my work is pointless. I start from zero, as if this person was my first client.
Could you give us an example?
We have many young people who start to be sexually active at a very young age. They are fifteen or sixteen, boys and girls. We are aware of this and come up with tons of prevention-focused activities; we discuss these issues, we talk about planned parenthood, contraception. They seem to understand and we get the impression that our activities have been meaningful. And then a fifteen-year-old dives headlong into these adventures, with all the consequences. For me, this is the 41st person. On the other hand, I must point out that when preventative work is done well, the result is that “nothing happens”. We find out that so and so did something or something happened to him/her, but we never find out what would have happened if we hadn’t done anything. And my guess is, things could usually have been much worse. It isn’t easy to estimate the impact of our work. In addition, our clients often disappear out of sight and we never find out how their journey continued and what influence our activities had. A friend simply tells us that so and so has moved to Canada.
Does the 41st person prove that if I am foolish enough, there is always hope?
Yes. I will always keep trying, regardless of whether my work proves useful, regardless of the prospect of failure. I won’t be discouraged. When we talk about these situations with our colleagues at work, mentioning all these failed attempts, we have a good laugh. We laugh at ourselves, not the clients! Why focus on always trying to find meaning in everything? Of course we monitor our results, we need to fill out various statistics in our reports. But this is not what drives us, and it has nothing to do with the energy we put into our work.
In spite of all this, don’t you ever feel like quitting?
There are many things that annoy me, of course. But this has nothing to do with my clients. This has to do with how society views us and how much/how little they support us. What the social mood is. Sometimes I can’t believe the decisions the authorities make, concerning the existence of our club. But I don’t feel like quitting, no. I would rather go on being a fool.
Using slightly lofty language, where do you see yourself in five years? Do you want to continue with your job?
Yes. It is not very lofty, but that’s the way it is.