The way to the surface – and beyond

This story may seem like a “miracle,” but it is actually an effect of Michael’s hard work and the many good people he has met along the way.

A small apartment meticulously cluttered by successive tenants who changed like in a kaleidoscope. In the bedroom, the floor was strewn with unopened envelopes, dirty dishes and clothes. The middle of the day. He’s lying in bed, wrapped in starched sheets. He has lived here for a short time. Who is he? How did he end up here? What awaits him after he bounces back? 

Before he came to this apartment, he experienced a difficult voyage. He had been in orphanages since birth. Due to his mild intellectual disability, his peers did not spare him. The staff at the institutions he was supposedly lucky enough to be placed in could not compensate him. 

First crew member

First, Mrs. Barbara Nowacka. She met him when he was 17. She was teaching a class that he attended together with a tutor from the orphanage. He was withdrawn, unsure of his surroundings. He tended not to speak. In his own words, he kept his mouth shut.

“He introduced himself as Michal and we could not get much more out of him,” states Ms. Barbara. 

Barbara made it possible for Michał to go to several camps organized by the foundation where she worked at the time. There he met young people who wanted to understand him. Eventually, he let himself be better known. He made a few friends. A smile appeared on his face.  

Unfortunately, vacations don’t last forever. 

A voyage into uncharted waters 

Once he returned to reality, adulthood caught up with him. It meant a transfer from a foster home to sheltered housing, where he would learn adulthood and independence. He began training for something he had not been allowed to do for a moment until now.

Ms. Barbara was still close by. She helped Michael with his sheltered housing care project. She did as much as one person can do, trying to get Michael into the cogs of the adult (real?) world. 

You do not leave the orphanage fully formed. These kids cannot do many things because they have not experienced them” – says Barbara. – Michał went to live in a sheltered apartment with Adrian. The beginnings were difficult. When a light bulb burnt out, they started turning the ones working between the lamps. One minute it was on in the bathroom, the next in the kitchen. They had no idea about cooking either, because no one had taught them. They could cook pasta, rice, and groats together in one pot. When I asked why, they answered that after all, when you eat, you mix it up, right? (laughs)

Adrian was not going to school and quickly lost his place in sheltered housing. He sought support from his homeless parents. He disappeared from the system’s radar. 

Michael held on to this accommodation longer. Unfortunately, subsequent roommates took advantage of his submissiveness and the fact that he didn’t know how to refuse.  

Michał admitted to Barbara about most of his sad adventures after a long time. For example, he often slept in the stairwell because his roommate had “guests” and would not let him in. Interventions on the part of the caretakers brought temporary improvement, but the situations kept recurring.

More ports 

Barbara not only took care of Michał at home, she also attended parent-teacher conferences and other school events. They became very close, and to this day for Michał she is Auntie Basia. 

-When Michał left the sheltered apartment, because he got a social housing, I became his volunteer and I helped him in every free moment – she says. – Unfortunately, I live near Warsaw, so I could not be with him all the time. 

Things were looking up. Michal had held down a job as a security guard for quite some time. Mrs. Barbara organized furniture for her charge so that he could furnish himself in his new apartment. 

Michał moved into the apartment (unfortunately) with the help of his neighbors. The neighbors, who eagerly took advantage of his pleasant disposition and confusion in the new situation. They felt that Michał’s apartment was warmer and cozier than theirs. At first, there was hospitality. After some time, Michal was no longer allowed in the apartment, which had turned into a den. When he called the police, he was beaten by the new tenants.  

He moved to his mother’s, with whom he had a better relationship since he found a job. He lasted there for two months. More arguments, despite his great love for her, lead Michael to a drastic step. To another secret. 

He called me – says Ms Barbara. – I learnt from him that he had been sleeping in stairwells for some time. He didn’t want to admit it.  

Things weren’t going well at work either. He was transferred from car dealership security to a store. There, there were a few co-workers who, by insulting and exploiting Michal, effectively drove him away. He simply stopped going there. 

Mrs. Barbara had to perform further miracles. She found a room, a small cottage that Michał would have to heat and renovate himself. The apartment was in disastrous condition.

Michael also managed to get his job back with the help of Barbara. Negotiations with his supervisor and explaining the reasons for his absence enabled him to return. He maintains his position to this day.  

It looked like it was possible to bounce back from the bottom. 

All aboard

The road to the surface, however, was still going to take some time.  

We are in the cluttered bedroom where Michał sleeps. This is his first meeting with the Happy Way Foundation, which Kamilla Gibas co-founded with Barbara.

I couldn’t believe what I saw,” says Kamilla. – Dirt, decaying furniture, garbage left by previous tenants… But the worst were the envelopes. 

Mandates, calls for payment, letters from bailiffs. The Foundation’s team has established that he owes about PLN 15,000. It should be easier to help in this case, since Michał has a disability certificate of a light degree, right? 

It should have, but Michael’s certificate is no longer valid because he did not apply in time for its renewal. After the Foundation’s team intervened and applied for a new certificate, the commission decided that there was no disability. It had been there all his life, but now it disappeared, vanished into thin air. 

Just like the people who signed cell phone contracts in Michal’s name before, melted into thin air. Just like the nice lady who accosted him on the sidewalk and sold him an English course. Part of the contract for the course was also a loan. A lost boy with a tendency to ride buses and trains without a ticket increased his debt by another thousand zlotych.

“We attached a list of all our debts to the appeal,” says Kamilla. – After a long fight, we succeeded. Michał regained his status of a person with light disability. 

Once there was a team of people around Michael who wanted to help him in an organized way, things took off.

-“After the judgment was renewed, we were able to write off the debt for the public transport tickets,” Kamilla continues. – Michał even got a free pass for future trips. The credit related to the pressed English course was also written off. The battle for that lasted a really long time and we got through to the bank management. Negotiations were also underway to have the debts, with which not much more could be done, paid off in installments. 

The overhaul in life and finances continued at its best. At the same time, there were other volunteers who began to change Michael’s surroundings. Decluttering his four corners. 

Two Michaels 

Apart from the anonymous renovation crews and a helpful lady architect who designed everything as a volunteer, there also appeared Michał Gawryś. A friend of the Foundation, currently a member of its board, who wanted to take a break from the corporate world by helping. 

-“At Kamilla’s request I offered to help, but only in a practical way, because I’m not eager to meet new people,” says the older Michał.

A renovation at Michal’s house provided an opportunity for such help. The older Michael was painting the bathroom while the younger one watched him closely. He sang disco-polo songs and told jokes. They began to talk. A series of meetings. A relationship was born in which the younger Michael could feel normal, like a buddy, a friend. 

-I see Michael once or twice a week. What do we do? – The older Michael smiles at his own memories.

They are going crazy. They do it on their own terms. Michał is half older than his new friend, but that doesn’t stop them from riding go-karts together, going out for pizza and beer. Michal the mentor saw great potential in his companion and helped him develop it. 

They spend a lot of time in conversations that are only seemingly about nothing. They created in the younger Michal layers of new words, curiosity about the world and self-confidence. The older Michael receives nothing but satisfaction for his time, yet their relationship has lasted for four years.  

In this duo, the younger Michael discovered his passion for motorization. He exchanged go-karts for scooters and turned out to be a master of traffic and an enthusiastic mechanic. The two get to know each other more and more, and the younger Michal has the opportunity to test new tastes of oriental food, which he could never afford. 

Thanks to his friend, Michael was able to fulfill many dreams. One of them was to host a Christmas party for his mom and siblings. The elder Michael helped prepare dinner, clean the apartment, and then brought and dropped off all the guests. If it’s Christmas, it’s magic. 

Do not run away when there is a storm 

Parallel to the financial and housing cleanup, hard therapeutic work continues, led by successive Empowerment Assistants from the Happy Way Foundation.  

The last Assistant who led Michał to his 26th birthday (the day he formally leaves the Foundation) was Magdalena Ambroziak. 

 They worked together for two years, during which time Michael faced many challenges. 

The first was to take responsibility for his own actions. Something he did not want to do, or rather could not do. 

-“When there was a problem or something that needed to be done, Michał would simply run away, leave the Foundation and slam the door. He got back on his feet in other areas, but we had to work on that,” says Magda.

He has been in touch with Barbara until now, he visits her at home in Konstancin, he calls her his second mom. She willingly helps with housework, mows the grass. They talk to each other a lot. Mrs Barbara taught him to be grateful, which brought results. 

During this time Magda moved on to the next challenge with Michal. Learning to make decisions completely on her own. 

– I saw that I didn’t need to motivate him that much, so I started to put things differently. When he was upset or afraid that he wouldn’t be able to do something, I would say: “Surely you can do it. You’re an adult and it’s up to you. If you don’t do it, that’s fine, but you need to remember what the consequences might be.” 

For this surrender of the helm over his own decisions, Michał thanked Magda when their cooperation at the Foundation came to an end. It was thanks to this that he felt for the first time that he knew what he wanted from life. He could believe in how much he could achieve. 

-Write about it in a nice way – Magda asks me. – About the fact that Michał has opened up. His hard work has made him take responsibility for his own affairs. He makes doctor’s appointments, keeps track of the appointments, picks up and delivers documents where needed. He knows how to ask the right people for help. He knows how to plan, dream and strive for goals. 

Michal no longer slams the door when there is a problem. When something is beyond him, he knows which door to knock on. 

– I was most touched by what he once said to me while we were cooking together,” Magda continues. – I asked him what was most important to him at the Foundation’s recent birthday party. It’s our annual event in December. I expected him to talk about meeting friends, presents, good food and fun. But Michael thought about it and stopped cutting vegetables for a moment. Still looking at the countertop, he said that the most important thing for him was that he could give Kamilla, me and the other people from the Foundation gifts. That he could say thank you. I wasn’t cutting onions at the time, but I almost cried. 

A brand new cruise 

Michael has found love. He has recently moved in with his girlfriend. He takes care of her and they make plans for the future together. The boy works hard every day to support his new household. He has become the captain of his family. He wants to do his best in this role. 

In the duo of Michal and Michal the friendship is still flourishing. The boy was able to learn the basics of piano playing thanks to this. He goes with his friend on day trips around Poland. Older Michal meets with clients and younger Michal drinks coffee while strolling through the old towns of Toruń, Poznan or Lodz.  

There is no shortage of surprises and touching gestures. When Michal the guardian celebrated his round birthday, instead of flowers and presents he asked his guests for donations to buy plane tickets from Warsaw to Gdansk, so that the younger Michal could fly for the first time in his life. 

Michael has become a volunteer with The Way Of Hapiness Foundation. In his free time he helps with our activities. He is also an irreplaceable Handyman. He rides his motorcycle, dressed in a professional outfit, and from time to time he visits us to check if everything is alright. When the Foundation was relocating, Michał took an active part in the renovation, he was even promoted to the position of Renovation Manager. He was no longer just on the surface, he also began to create a place that would make this journey possible for others. 

– Michal is one of our first mentees,” concludes Kamilla Gibas. – Over the years he has built deep relationships with all of us. Now he is a completely different boy. We know he can handle it. We can watch him and support him if necessary, but you can see that he is already on his happy way. 

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Kornel Machnikowski

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