Jerzy Owsiak: Poland’s Guardian Angel
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because doing what the state won’t is one way to deal with poverty in Poland.
Since the publication of this article, in February 2015, voters elected the conservative Law and Justice Party — and Owsiak’s charity event has hit a few bumps. In the weeks before this year’s event, government officials publicly heaped scorn on the event; reportedly, one even accused Owsiak of raising money for Satanist causes. Nonetheless, the orchestra raised some $11 million at its event Sunday. Representatives of the Polish government did not respond to requests for comment.
“How are you getting out of here?” The speaker, Piotr “Bagi” Bagiński, head of Poland’s Berserkers Team, shifts against the cinder-block background of the team’s windowless training facility, a hole-in-the-wall spot where some of Europe’s toughest MMA fighters train.
“By bus?” And the color drains from the faces of an entire room of some of Europe’s toughest fighters while Bagiński shakes his head at me, indicating that one of the team members will drive us wherever we needed to go. As we weave through the streets of Szczecin, a western Polish city about two hours east of Berlin, universal signs of urban breakdown — gaggles of nonworking men drinking on street corners, street scuffles, dirty kids, garbage and graffiti — make it readily apparent why our friends don’t quite believe in Poland’s economic “miracle.”
Apparently neither does Jerzy Owsiak, who, while loath to criticize government efforts, is trying to rally more government support for his efforts — efforts that have seen Owsiak, now 61, spending more than two decades trying quite literally to heal a nation by raising millions for medical equipment for children’s hospitals across the country. It’s a sort of cool case of kismet, considering that in 1992, Owsiak (pronounced “offshack”) was just a guy making stained-glass windows and running small radio and TV programs. But, along with his partners in noncrime Piotr Burczyński and Bohdan Maruszewski and his wife, Lidia Niedźwiedzka, Owsiak heard that some heart surgeons were struggling to raise cash for medical equipment.
Poland has gotten a lot of attention for its economic growth, but it still has a long way to go.
It was a great “Why not?” moment — total happenstance driving his crew to do what it could to help. But when he invited the doctors to come on his radio show, he had no idea at the time that major portions of his future were going to be tied to fundraising.
And more or less like that, Owsiak’s Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy, or the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity (GOCC), was born. “If you’ve ever been poor,” Owsiak says as he prepares to take his first vacation in a good long while, “you know it can be hard. And if you’re poor and sick, even worse. But the problems of the poor are not seen to be problems that affect everyone, though they do.”
The Orkiestra is not an orchestra, though, the name chosen as randomly as the decision to start it and owing to the founders’ collective background in radio and music. And the charity’s main annual event, held on the second Sunday of January, has an impact year-round, and not just at Christmas, like the name might suggest. So with 30 full-timers and a volunteer staff of about 120,000, GOCC has given away almost $160 million over its lifetime, according to Owsiak, who today, in his damned near trademarked red glasses, is a figure of significant note in Poland.
“Every kid that’s born in Poland now is examined with equipment funded by Orkiestra,” says Wiktoria Beczek, journalist at gazeta.pl, an online partner of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s second-biggest newspaper. She first encountered the group 12 years ago, not as a journalist but as a volunteer, pitching in at an event. “I think it was the first time when I felt satisfaction, because I was helping people who needed me,” she says.
Beczek says that Owsiak and his foundation have helped hundreds of thousands of kids. And they need it. Poland has gotten a lot of attention for its economic growth — and for gliding through a financial crisis that hit other countries much harder — but it still has a long way to go. Its GDP per capita remains less than half of Spain’s, and its young people continue to flee for better job prospects in other EU countries. Some 17.1 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and in recent years, worries have grown about social inequality, including access to health care.
Owsiak’s first effort with that radio show and the doctors was successful enough in its encouragement of cash movement from the have-a-little-mores to the have-a-little-lesses that he formalized things. GOCC became official the following year, in 1993, and it gave voice to an event called the Grand Finale, a fundraising holiday when volunteers flood the streets to collect money, giving donors heart-shaped stickers in return. Stickers that day are damned near ubiquitous. It’s gone online, too — GOCC collected some $300,000 via its website in 2014. And the television special in its first 12 years pulled in more than $60 million for public hospitals that specialize in pediatric cardiac surgery, according to the organization.
Not everyone shares the rosy view of Owsiak’s fundraising, though. Partially on account of the GOCC’s spinoff Woodstock Festival and its connections to rock music and a certain kind of cultural liberalism, Owsiak has drawn some curious heat, and no small amount of hate. Hate that focuses on everything from Owsiak driving a BMW and concerns about cash to philosophical beefs that support the idea that churches should handle all charity and charity should be widespread and not restricted to designated causes, as this creates political “weight.”
Maciej Sroczynski, a priest, fulminating on various right-wing forums — gingerly, as Owsiak has sued and won cases against more aggressive detractors, most recently yesterday — has called out GOCC. Why? Because the funds don’t go to sick children, just to the hospitals, and this consequently unburdens the state “of its obligation to provide health care for its citizens from collected taxes,” Sroczynski says.
Owsiak has heard this before from critics both larger and smaller, and his response remains largely the same: “The Orchestra is going to play [till] the end of the world and one day longer.”