YWCA executive director visits Poland

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Anne-Marie Zell Schwerin, executive director at the local YWCA recently enjoyed a trip to Poland. She spent ten days there, networking with people involved in World YWCA and the YWCA of Poland.

World YWCA is a network of about 150 countries across the globe working on many issues such as health, empowering women and eradicating domestic violence.

"The number one focus of World YWCA is AIDS and AIDS education," she said. The concern covers the consequences for women and children and for the AIDS orphans. Another priority is ending violence against women. "Domestic violence is definitely an international problem," she said.

According to Zell Schwerin, in the U.S. the YWCA's foremost mission is to empower women and eliminate racism. Internationally, women are involved in starting YWCAs and helping their communities. In Poland, people living in rural areas are getting together to create positive change in their towns. In one area, several towns had been devastated by floods and people pitched in to help in whatever ways were necessary.

"It's really up to the women in those communities to do the things that work for them. There's no one way to deal with the problem. It's not ‘this is the problem and you solve it this way.' It's helping women to become leaders in their own lives and their communities," she said.

Zell Schwerin, whose family is of Polish origins, enjoyed the trip, the networking, workshops and the culture of Poland.

"In mid-November, there are no tourists, you can see everything. It's beautiful. Right after getting on the bus you feel totally immersed in history. Poland has been around since about 900. Its culture was kept alive while it was occupied by so many other powers. They kept their language alive, they kept their incredible religious faith, they kept their culture and history alive through all of this," she said.

"It was the mothers and the women of Poland mostly at home, caring for the children, who did this. It's the women who kept the culture alive under centuries of war.

"Everything was destroyed. All the historic buildings you see have been rebuilt. In the 1950s, Warsaw was 85 percent destroyed. Architectural students and faculty knew they would be rebuilding at some time after the war, so they put together comprehensive drawings, then hid them in mines and other locations. The Poles are very future focused. Without that they wouldn't exist. They know the children are the future so they focus on building the community."

Because Zell Schwerin is Polish it all made sense to her and tugged at her heart.

The trip provided her with many insights. Through an awareness of the struggles of others, we gain more appreciation for the bounty and freedoms we enjoy.

"...Things that we take completely for granted in the United States; we've always had our institutions of law and government. We have elections. They may be contentious but nobody dies, nobody gets killed. Cars aren't being burned out in the streets," she said.

The Polish people have only had those freedoms since 1989. She said they are building democratic institutions and increasing voter education and registration.

Her visit to the country coincided with an election, so she got to watch the voting process first-hand.

"I actually got to go with them when they voted. Free speech. Contrast this to 25 years ago, when they couldn't assemble in public. World YWCA wants to help them become aware of their rights as citizens and their ability to make a difference in their communities."

She attended many workshops, mainly in Warsaw. People from remote villages came to the city for two and a half days of workshops, on all kinds of topics.

Recently the Polish government has been looking for ways to save money. They began closing and consolidating schools, especially in rural areas and small communities.

Citizens said transporting children to other communities for school and losing their own small schools was unacceptable. So they worked together to keep small local schools operating.

According to Zell Schwerin, the Polish people grew up under communist rule where everything comes from the government to the community. So learning to create on a local, grassroots level is a relatively new experience.

Many of the communities received help from Alina Kesinska-Baldyga, president of Polish YWCA.

"She made it her mission to help women in rural areas change their world," said Zell Schwerin. "In true YWCA fashion that's going to look differently in every community."

Zell Schwerin credits Kesinska-Baldyga with having a natural ability to network and bring people with compatible needs and skills, together. Another emphasis she brought to the Polish YWCA, is her belief that "education will change the world."

Older women who lived through communist control and some who lived through World War II are reminding younger Poles who've grown up with freedom what it was like to live without it.

Karlene Ponti can be reached by calling 509-526-8324 or by e-mail at karleneponti@wwub.com.

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