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I have raised nineteen children

rysunki Piotr Kowalczyk
You know how the younger children explained to their mates who I was to them? A pretend mom.

I had just spread a blanket in front of the guesthouse, laid down, and admired the Tatra mountains. To stay in touch with the world, I brought a radio. I’d given up on the trails. My friend and her daughter went to the mountains that day, and would enjoy them for all of us. So I relaxed and surfed the channels. I stopped for an interview with the director of the SOS Children’s Village in Biłgoraj.

I’d never heard of them. 

What the director was saying sounded interesting. He was waiting for the first residents – single women and orphaned children. They were about to arrive. Make families together. Although, really, they already had, during the integration camp in Szklarska Poręba. That’s where they’d matched. If a little one took to some woman, they would become her foster kid. 

Yeah, some of the candidate moms dropped out, got cold feet. 

Then, I heard the words that turned my life on its head:

„We have fifteen houses,” the director said, „and we’ve only created nine families. We need mothers. Six of them. But they need to be childless, single women. We are waiting!” 

When I heard that… You know, I’d been looking for my place in life for so long, and it suddenly spoke to me. I even met the requirements. I was twenty-seven. No child, no partner. 

The reporter gave the contact information: Children’s Friends Association (TPD) in Zamość. I wrote it down. My friend? I didn’t tell her. I went back home to Gdansk, immediately wrote a letter that I, Danuta Ulidowicz, am applying to be a foster mother. 

It was August 1983. I got an answer after a month. 

My whole life, before I sent that letter, was an escape. 

I grew up in Jaworzyna Śląska. The town and home grated on me. Ours was a very strict home. My parents would make all the decisions for me. My dad had dreamt up that I was supposed to become a nurse. I tried. I lasted a year in nursing school, pretending to go to classes, but really I just explored the neighbourhoods. After a while, it came out. Dad barged into my room and, without anger, said:

„Should I take your paperwork out of school?”


What next? Certainly not high school. I didn’t want to end up in an office, stuck as an accountant, like my dad. You’ll be surprised, but I picked a vocational school, carpentry. I put together tables, wardrobes, beds. I liked the smell of wood and physical labour. I passed the exam, got a job at a furniture factory in Świdnica. I finally said goodbye to Jaworzyna!

I waited for my dad to leave for the sanatorium. Then, I packed my bags and ran away.

That didn’t last. Chord work and low wages – that’s not for me. I quit. Dad was glum. He didn’t criticize. Instead, he would toss out questions: „What do you want to do with your life? Do you have any plans?” 

I did, but they were my secret. I’d been looking through ads in the papers for a while. I found an offer from a worsted spinning mill in Jelenia Góra, making yarn. I waited for my dad to leave for the sanatorium. Then, I packed my bags and ran away. At the door, I said to my mom, „There’s no room for me here.” 

Bold for a twenty-one year old.

I got hired, rented a room, worked hard in the pre-treatment department. I was afraid to go home. I called my mom from the post office. She wasn’t angry, she tried to understand me, we talked a lot. My dad? He was silent. 

The yarn gave me freedom. Two years passed before I’d had enough. In my dreams, I was like Sisyphus: rolling things that looked like boilers up a hill. I quit. 

„What are you looking for? Come home,” my parents kept saying. 

But I kept doing my thing. Searched the job offers again. The one that caught my eye was from the Gdańsk Shipyard. I folded up the paper, got on a train, applied cold. The secretary was surprised. She asked if I was alone. She got me a job and a room with four female shipyard workers. 

I was so happy. I no longer worked in one place. The ships changed, and my job was sewing wire covers. I met a master of the profession, an older gentleman who was like a father to me. I confided to him that I had recently gone on a holiday in the mountains, heard about the SOS Children’s Villages, wrote a letter, and did not get a response. “Don’t give up,” he ordered. So, I went back to my place and called the village on the phone. A psychologist recruiting mothers picked up. 

„Do you know when there’s going to be a decision? I’d like to know where I stand. I’m at a crossroads.” 

„Biłgoraj, Monday, eight a.m. Please come to an interview.” 

Where did the SOS Children’s Villages come from? From Austria. Their originator was Hermann Gmeiner. He grew up without a mother, raised by his older sister. Then, he took part in the Second World War. His greatest dismay was the fate of the orphans. To help them, after returning from the front, he founded the SOS Children’s Villages association. The first village was built in 1949 in Imst. He became its director, and its residents were orphaned children and single women. Why didn’t he recruit men? Most of them had died in the war.

Later, he expanded his scope. He established a general office in Strasbourg and by 1986 – the year of Gmeiner’s death – two hundred and thirty-three villages had been built in eighty-six countries, including the first one in Eastern Europe – in Biłgoraj. They were supported by states, foreign donors, private sponsors, and donations from people. Most functioned in a similar way: from twelve to fourteen houses, each with a mother and several foster children. Women were paid a salary. They became the children’s legal guardians, often giving them their own last names. They had the support of teachers and various resources for parenting. The children had no contact with their biological families. This was the state of the art in pedagogy at the time. 

it was a Sunday afternoon, late autumn. First impression of the village? Gray and ugly. No trees, no grass. No playground. Bare buildings. And this is where kids live? 

„Daughter”, „son”? Never. The management called them pupils. Or „Mongolian hordes”. Because they came from alcoholic families, had traumas.

I passed the gate, walked into a square, looked around. The houses were dark. Only one had a light and an open door. I knocked, admitting I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was in the right place. It was the home of A., an SOS mother. She gave me a bed, a dinner. At the table, she told me: „I’ve had a rough landing, too. There was still rubble in the houses. The management thought that if we cleaned up with the kids, we’d have free integration.”

“Daughter”, “son”? Never. They called them pupils. Or “Mongolian hordes”. Because the kids came from alcoholic families, had traumas. Sometimes they would take a run, bang their head against a wall, and run on. I didn’t believe her. I saw the kids. How would I describe them? Normal. They chatted with me. 

After dinner, I laid down in the guest room. There was only a bed there, because the house was still unfinished. Before I went to sleep, I thought: “If A. can do it, I can do it.” 

The next day was harder. I was so nervous, I didn’t touch breakfast. I tried to figure out what to say in the recruitment interview. Silly me, I chose frankness. I went to the office, and there was the director, the pedagogue, the psychologist. The latter pressed: 

„Do you expect gratitude from the children?”

„That would be nice.” 

„You want them to be grateful because you came to them?” 

„I don’t know. But in case of problems, I will turn for help to the more experienced mothers. And you, of course. You’re the professionals. Will you help?” 

„Yes, yes. But we will only see the children from time to time. And you will be there permanently. Can you take that?” 

„Time will tell.” 

He also probed if I could be trusted. If I can bear the responsibility. He held it against me that I was only twenty-six years old. Finally, he told me to go back to Gdańsk and wait. Later, I found out that after the interview, he consulted with the director. They doubted me. They concluded that even if I became a mother, I would soon quit. 

I had doubts, too. I went back to the shipyard, moved to a place of my own. After a few months, in January, knock, knock. An unannounced visit of the village staff: the director, the psychologist, and a driver. They drove around Poland, did home visits, checked whether the candidates hadn’t changed their minds. 

Me? I was unwavering. I wanted to be a mother. I was invited to a course. It started in February and lasted three months. Once I graduated, I could become a mom. There was only one problem: there were more than 20 women applying, and only six spots. 

unfortunately, the work on the ship was delayed. I wasn’t granted leave until February seventh. I came late. 

In Biłgoraj, all the women had already moved into houses number one and two. So, I moved in alone in the two-story number four, I chose the mother’s room. I knew this was the one because there was a baby’s crib. Yes, I felt parental. For the first time in my life. You know the feeling? That someone needs you? That you belong somewhere?

The course had two parts. 

Theory: meetings with therapists, psychologists, educators, SOS mothers. And talking about children, because we, the candidates, were wondering what we should do if biological families ever turned up. Nothing, the mothers explained, these contacts do not happen, the children start a new life with us. Do not happen? I thought one never cut off one’s roots. 

Practice: cooking classes. And one-day stays at homes – for one day we would be aunties. We filled in for the mothers, who were finally getting some sleep or going into town. Some of them supervised us. They warned: „The kids lie. Don’t believe them.” Rubbish! I trusted the pupils. 

Until they started testing me. Ola said that she had no homework. Marzenka acted cheerful, although her sad eyes showed the truth. Monika didn’t trust anyone, and when asked a question, she answered, “What the fuck do you care?” 

And there was Dominik. He got mad when I forbade him something. „I’m moving out! I can’t stand it here!” he threatened and ran off. 

That’s when I thought, “A child is like a balloon. They always want more. You must let them expand, but carefully. Otherwise, the balloon will explode.”

I was bewildered. We hadn’t covered crisis situations in class yet. Should I go after him? Stop him by force? He was quite a big lad. Fortunately, we had a glazed front door. I could see him reach the end of the footpath and stop. Gosia, his sister, reassured me. She put her hand on my shoulder. 

„Don’t worry, auntie. He does the same thing with mom.” 

I went out to get him, we sat on the step. 

„Why did you act like that?” 

„Because everyone is telling me what to do. I’m not allowed anything. I want to go ride a bike!”

„But you don’t have a bicycle card. Come on, I set the table, we’ll eat and talk.” 

After the meal, he calmed down, we talked. That’s when I thought, “A child is like a balloon. They always want more. You must let them expand, but carefully. Otherwise, the balloon will explode. ” 

Each day visit ended with the candidates getting together. They gossiped, told what adventures they’d had. And they got more and more competitive. 

I didn’t. I was tired of it, went for walks instead – in the fields or into town. After three months, we gathered in the office. The director asked us to come in, one person at a time. 

The first one came out: „I’m not going to be a mother, only an aunt. I guess I’m fine with that.” 

The second: „Auntie? That’s not for me. I’m out.” 

Third: „I’m a mother!”

More and more passed through, until there was only one position left, in house number six. I was already seeing myself living in it, celebrating holidays, welcoming children, giving them my family as theirs: my parents, my sister, and my brothers. But the director ruined everything. 

“I don’t feel you’re ready,” he said. „You could stay as an aunt.” 

„Fine. But I have a condition.” 

„What is it?”

„If a mother spot opens up, you have to promise I’ll be the first to take her place.” 

in one week, I closed up Gdańsk. I ended my contract by mutual consent, said goodbye to my friends, the master, and off I went to the aunt home. It was a block of bedsits, right at the village gate. Three other women lived there beside me. We filled in for the mothers when they took time off, moving into a home for as much as a week. 

„I don’t get where you work. It’s all clear as mud. Until you have your own place, I won’t come,” my dad said.

Were we like parents? Yes. But we wouldn’t be called “mom.” 

Maybe that’s why I didn’t like Mother’s Day, because as an aunt, I didn’t have my own holiday. To cheer myself up, I invited my own family.

Everyone showed up except dad.

„I don’t get where you work. It’s all clear as mud. Until you have your own place, I won’t come,” he said. 

Some mothers treated me like a cleaning lady. “There’s only one captain on a ship,” they repeated. They were jealous because I was hitting it off with the kids. When they went out, they left instructions. If I failed one point, I got yelled at. “You destroyed my home,” I heard once. I cried and answered: „When you were in training, no one held you to a list of things to do. We each have to find our own way.” 

The kids kept fooling me. They didn’t write down the homework, then pretended they had none. Their mother knew these tricks, I didn’t. I had to be more vigilant. Some time later, the village hired new aunts. I was only going to two houses. Mirka’s was the best. There, I hugged the children, kissed them, I got close with a boy with a speech impediment, we studied, read, talked. I also helped raise her nine-month-old daughter. 

Yes, I was growing into the parental role. 

And I wasn’t even worried about the new regulations. To become a mother, I now had to pass the high school exit exam. No problem! I went to evening high school classes on the weekends. Time was growing short, and not only because of study. The new aunts were falling away. Three of us were left to work fifteen houses. I was so busy, my birthday went without me noticing. I would dash from house to house, all over the place. 

But it wasn’t just the aunts who were quitting. Mother from number six, Ula, resigned after her dad died. She went back to her hometown to help her mother out. She took her foster children and set up a family foster home. Soon, the director summoned me. 

„Congratulations! You have just become a mother.” 

what did I feel? Happiness. And then the certainty that after about four years of being an aunt, nothing would surprise me. 

I was wrong. 

In September 1988, I moved in to number six. A two-story house, a garden. The first floor was the living area: a vestibule, a hall, a cloakroom with lockers, a bathroom, a huge living room, a door to the patio, a kitchen, and a dining room. On the mezzanine, three rooms. On the upper floor, six. Plus a bathroom with a shower and a bathtub, and two toilets. 

It all needed a renovation. The management hired a company that patched the roof, renovated the bathroom, painted the walls. I supervised and slept in the living room. I waited for a child. Mine. Beloved. I could have my pick. But I said I’ll take anyone. 

And so, I got Filip’s paperwork from a children’s home in Zamość. No one wanted him. He was two, but his development was at a level of a one-year-old. I said yes. But I didn’t go to Zamość to get him. I preferred not to be the one who plucked him out of the nest. 

Earlier, my mom came by because I was panicking and needed support. When the big day came, we were making dinner. Suddenly, we heard an engine noise. 

He’d arrived!

We went out. There was a van in the yard, some nuns got out, they opened the door and stood my son on the ground. He was wearing a pantyhose and red shoes. What do you do in these moments? What your intuition tells you. I spread my arms out, I said, „Come to mommy.” And he didn’t even think, he smiled and rushed to me. He hugged my legs, everyone was in tears. I took him in my arms, carried him home. He was distracted. He sat on a high stool at the table but he didn’t touch the food. He just drank. 

He followed me everywhere in the next few days. We were together all the time. I cooked, he was next to me. I went to the bathroom, he waited at the door. Sleeping in separate rooms was out of the question. He would cry and scream. I put him to bed next to me. We went to sleep with the night light on, he was so afraid of the dark. 

The village had this view that a new child in Biłgoraj was to be a clean slate. No past, no roots. I couldn’t agree to that. Without the past, his fears could never be understood. In Filip’s case, it was the tap. He wouldn’t let me open it and put him in the bath. He was so stressed his chest broke out in hives. He’d go rigid. His arms or legs wouldn’t bend. So I would fill the tub, wait a while, and go on when he was ready. Where had that fear come from? I supposed baths at the children’s home were more like dish washing. The staff would pick him up, put him under the faucet, scrub his face, his body, and that was it. But what if the water had been too cold? Or too hot? 

I gave him all I had, including my last name. When I talked to him, I called myself „mommy”. „Come, mommy’s gonna make you a sandwich, mommy’s gonna dress you up, mommy’s gonna tie your scarf.” I had to wait long to hear anything in return. Filip had speech problems, he first spoke only after a few years. 

It was almost Christmas. My brother invited us. The family was waiting for, well, a side show, here’s Danusia with her son. We barely got in the door and everyone started looking him up and down. 

„What’s there to look at?” I snapped. „A child like any other. Treat Filip normally. He’s not an exhibit.” 

My son met his grandparents and uncles. No, my brother’s wife’s family didn’t ask about my job. After a few days, we came back to our place. I had to prepare the house, because in January more papers were coming from Zamość. 

I am not picky. I thought everyone deserves a home. 

I took in two more kids, siblings. Ewa, two years old, and Maciek, four, whom their parents gave away and never visited. They came in the same van as before. Only Maciek understood the situation. When he got out of the car, he shouted: „Mom!” and threw himself in my arms. Ewa was in stupor. I walked up, took her hand. I felt like I was leading a doll. 

No, I never used the word “punishment”. I never threatened.

I needed help. I got aunts to come over that other mothers didn’t want. Maybe they didn’t like to share power? Or they could not tolerate if someone spoke out of turn about their family? It never bothered me. I always got along. Thanks to the aunts, I could take Maciek to the Children’s Health Centre, and Filip to a therapist.

Our day looked like this: wake up, brush your teeth, make the beds. Maciek made his own, I taught the little ones. Then breakfast, always together. And then, play time. Filip needed no company. Ewa sat there, not touching anything, not even the dolls. And Maciek – now there was a quick one. He would page through story books, but after a minute, he was done reading. He liked dinosaurs, which he knew because he collected magazines with skeletons. But most of all, he liked to mess with his brother. He would knock over his buildings. I didn’t know why, because Fillip still didn’t speak. 

No, I never used the word “punishment”. I never threatened. All I ever did was sit Maciek down at the table or on the stairs. I would tell him, „You’re tired. Get some rest.” If they got to fighting, we would skip right to lunch. Then, more play time, dinner, story time, and off to bed again. 

Maciek needed the most attention. He had stripes on his body from a hot stove cover. How had he got them? He never said. What he did was constant mischief. He would ask a question and not listen to the answer. To go to the bathroom, he waited for permission. He would run in place or around the table. 

„What’s going on?” I’d ask.

„I need to pee!” 

And we’d run to the loo. 

I never knew what to expect from him. Once, I couldn’t sleep. I went down to the kitchen, and the refrigerator was open. Maciek was under the table, eating cheese out of the package. I asked if he was hungry. He said yes. So, I made sandwiches, he ate them, and only then went to bed. (I had similar problems with Ewa, who’d put gherkins under her pillow). 

But how can you not like a kid like him? He would walk around the village, point to his house for anyone around, and proudly say, „That’s where my mom lives.” 

In October of 1989, I went to an at-risk children’s shelter. 

„Do you know who I am?” 

Nine-year-old Aneta was silent. Her one-year-older sister, Kasia, spoke up: „Yes, miss told us that a mother would come from the children’s village.” 

I said, „I can take you in.” 

Kasia asked, „But what are these villages? We want to hear it from you.” 

So I told them that it’s in Biłgoraj, that there are children who were not taken care of by their biological parents, that now we look after them, we foster moms. That we make genuine families, and that I’d be happy if they join us. 

They asked for some time to think. They chose to come to the village. 

I gave them a week to pack and to cool off. When I got back, we kissed each other on the cheeks. Aneta asked what she should call me, “Miss? Mom?”

“You decide,” I said. On the way to Biłgoraj, we stopped by a shop. For the first time in their lives, they chose school backpacks, pencils, crayons. At home, Maciek greeted them. He was making a point that he was here first. And later he intervened when the girls addressed me impersonally: „Why don’t you say ‘mom’? This is mom!” 

This unlocked the word for them. 

They slept in one room, but they kept butting heads. They’d pass each other in the hall and shout insults back and forth. I split them up. One stayed on the mezzanine, the other went upstairs. They didn’t know how to share me. Aneta waited until I went to the laundry room in the basement, and we would spend ten or fifteen minutes there together. Kasia? She would just retreat. I had to talk her out of her shell. She was closed off, rebellious. She had seen her father die. She’d also been there as her mother lay dying. I felt that she would ask about them someday. 

That’s why I didn’t hide anything. One night, as I was walking to the toilet, I noticed a silhouette next to the girls’ room (they were still rooming together). The figure was leaning against the radiator, looking at the children. Its face was blurry. I wasn’t scared. I knew it was their father’s ghost. 

The next day, I sat with my daughters in the kitchen. 

„I don’t know how you’re gonna react. I think your dad was here.”

„Dad?” Aneta said, surprised. „I’m scared.” 

„You have no one to fear. Maybe he wanted to see if you were okay?” 

Afterwards, we went to the church and to the cemetery, said a prayer, lit a candle. Some time later, my home turned into a circus. The girls’ half-brother came to see them. Biłgoraj did not allow such visits, but the system was lax. And since the brother worked fixing buses, he took one and organized a trip. He brought half of his village along because people wanted to see the children’s village. They were surprised when they saw it. Nothing resembled an orphanage. You know what they did? They barged into my home without knocking, disturbed the peace. I got mad. I let the brother and his wife stay. „The rest of you out,” I snapped, „this is not a museum.”

A foster mom, even the best, cannot win against blood and genes. That’s why children need to be shown what a functional family looks like, and how it differs from a dysfunctional one. Let them decide which one they prefer. If they choose wrong, they can always come back.

I opposed the village policy, which restricted contact with the biological family. And here’s one thing you need to understand: a foster mom, even the best, cannot win against blood and genes. That’s why children need to be shown what a functional family looks like, and how it differs from a dysfunctional one. Let them decide which one they prefer. If they choose wrong, they can always come back. 

For example, before Christmas, I found a letter Kasia wrote. It was to her uncle, who’d brought her and her sister to the shelter. They wanted to visit him for the holidays. In the case that I didn’t agree, they planned an escape. 

I couldn’t let them run away, but I also couldn’t forbid them from seeing family. I gave the uncle a call. We agreed that the girls would go visit him. Maciek was in shock: „What are you doing? You’re leaving us?”

They missed out on a lot. It was my first Christmas in Biłgoraj. I made heaps of food. Me and the kids drew Christmas baubles and stuck them on the walls. We decorated the house with lights. The director didn’t like it, he thought he was too extravagant. I didn’t care because the kids loved it. They went to the neighbours’ and bragged that they had the best Christmas tree in the world. 

The girls returned after a few days. Although Aneta had received gifts from her uncle, she expected more at home. 

„I’m sorry. There are none. Santa comes once a year,” I said. 

No, I didn’t feel betrayed. More disheartened. I’d thought we built a stronger bond over the few dozen days. 

why did it hit me like that? I hadn’t listened to the psychologist from the village. He’d warned me not to have expectations. But I, the maverick, thought: you made sacrifices, so you have the right to demand family unity from the children. And I got my lesson. 

I only changed with Ala. I took her from the children’s home in Zamość when she was a year old. Her mother was absent. Father – unknown. She fit in with the family smoothly. You know, the youngest child, she made everyone laugh. She loved fairy tales. She was cuddly. I drank coffee standing up when I was around her, because as soon as I sat down, she’d jump on my lap, and I was afraid I’d spill it. Ewa was jealous of her openness. So much that for the first time ever she initiated a hug with me.

After Ala arrived, I got to renovating. Against the village rules, I allowed the children to choose linens, curtains, wall colours. I bought Filip a curtain with Dalmatians that he’d wanted very much. He still didn’t speak, so he pointed to the blue crayon. That’s the colour he painted his room, his siblings helping him out. 

You know how the younger children explained to their mates who I was to them? A pretend mom.

Rest? There was no time. Although I was entitled to twenty-six days of vacation a year, I’d go to the mountains for a while and worry about the children all along. I was more and more tired, and before I knew, there was the jubilee – I’d been a mother for ten years. The village psychologist told me to find a refuge for myself. I organized it in my own room. I would lie down and listen to jazz and blues on a tape recorder. Clapton is my god. Before going to bed, I would open all the doors, let the kids listen, and they would slowly fall asleep. 

Sleep was in short supply. I would especially nod off at 5 pm. I’d say, „Half an hour for the power,” and lock myself in my room. Aneta took charge of the house. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sleep much, because that was the time that the children had the most to tell. Knock-knock. It’s Maciek, he got in trouble at school. Knock-knock. This time Kasia, who’d had a quarrel with her siblings. I’d always open the door. 

You know how the younger children explained to their mates who I was to them? A pretend mom. 

I did not want the house to go unused. I adopted other children: two-year-old Paweł and four-year-old Robert. The younger one was no trouble. The other? When he sat down to eat, he devoured everything, and then looked around at other people’s plates. He’d eat an onion like an apple. He never got a stomach ache. After a few days, I started putting less food in front of him. After six months, he got used to it, even choosing what he liked. But he started stealing. He knew how, because he’d been going thieving with his dad. He’d stand watch, and get an onion as a reward. 

The children took to him. To Paweł as well. They taught them how we did things at home. Everyone cleans their own room, they explained, and once you start elementary school, you also start chore duty. That was one day a week washing dishes or setting the table. 

Usually once a week, we had cleaning day. I’d call a meeting at the table earlier. I assigned duties, handed out notes with instructions, For example: “How to keep the bathroom clean?” I explained which cloth to use. That first you wash the floor, then the tiles, the shower, the sink. Sometimes I’d check the results because the kids would cheat. 

rysunki Piotr Kowalczyk
rysunki Piotr Kowalczyk

Eight kids is a lot of work. I even forgot my 40th birthday. I thought then that I needed a command centre. I chose the table because it had worked well for the meetings. We ate three meals a day there, always together. And everyone had their seat. The youngest were sitting next to me, I had to feed them. Shopping, we did in groups. If we went there all at once, we’d tear the shop apart. And it was stressful. The children had to ask for an invoice for the village, even if they only got a candy bar. Everything had to be accounted for. They were embarrassed, too shy to say it. Over time, I started giving some of them a note with the association’s invoice info. They silently handed it over to the vendors. 

School was tough too. They were called ragamuffins. Other students wouldn’t sit at one desk with them. In response, my boys would beat them up. The girls would cry. Some of the teachers were mean, too. They’d say, “You’re from the village, you’ll amount to nothing.” At meetings, other parents said that the biggest troublemakers are the kids from Zielona – the street where the village was located. One time, I lost my temper:

“You should remember one thing. My kids have names!” 

Kasia was the first to move out. The village gave her three options: stay with me until she becomes independent; move to a youth housing community in Kraśnik; or to a youth house in Lublin. She chose Lublin. Three years later, Aneta also left. I missed her, and her help. 

I kept telling myself: they did not leave the family, they’d only left the house. They dropped by on weekends. And as their rooms were vacant, I took in four-year-old Szymon and two-year-old Agata. Real sweeties, trusting, loving. They needed my attention, of which Robert still took up a lot. 

It was already the late ‘90s, and he continued to steal. He would especially go after electronics, wallets, jewellery. The police were onto him. I’d testified so many times that I stopped being afraid of the police station. Finally, his luck ran out. He got sentenced to a juvenile detention facility. 

Around that time, Filip, Ewa, and Maciek also moved out. 

In their place came Iza (age eleven) and Beata (three). 

It was a time of change in Bilgoraj. Finally, contacts with biological families were allowed. The deputy director said something really smart: “We cannot uproot the pupils and say to them, ‘You came to us as birches, and from now on you will be spruces.’” 

On visits, she made her son call her „mom”. At those times, I was „Miss Danusia” to him. That hurt.

There was also a new temporary house for children without a regulated legal situation, so that they wouldn’t have to go to a youth shelter. It could house up to 10 kids. A five-year-old boy named Łukasz stayed there. No one wanted him because he misbehaved, cursed, and got into fights. Even the SOS mothers turned him down. But not me. I wanted to meet him first. I told the staff I’d drop by, they passed it on to him. And you know what he did? He didn’t wait. He put on his helmet, got on his bike, and rode up to my house. When he saw me, he announced: 

„You are going to be my mom!”

„It’s not so simple.”

„What’s not simple? I’m packing up and coming over.” 

He wasn’t wrong. Three days later, he became my son. What did I know about him? His mother had been drinking while pregnant, he was born with foetal alcohol syndrome. Because of this, he had problems with his teeth, trouble learning, hyperactivity. He would panic at the sight of a police car, because the police had once tried to take him from his biological mother. They fled, went into hiding. It was enough to make him afraid. 

At home, he was helpful. If I was sick, he would bring me tea, sandwiches. He paraded about wearing a bow tie. He would hold the door for his sisters. But at school, if there was trouble, he was always there. He became a scapegoat. His buddies were messing around, putting all the blame him, and he didn’t protest. 

“You are a magnet for trouble,” I chided him. 

„I didn’t do anything!” 

„But you were there with your friends. Even if you didn’t participate, you could have protested.” 

His biological mom gave me a hard time. She was in prison, able to make calls for good behaviour. To her son, she pretended she was at a sanatorium. His grandmother also called. „You have no right to call miss Danuta mother,” she shouted through the earpiece, „you already have one!”

The director was delighted that I worked so well with biological families. „You’re making it look so easy,” he praised me. So did the pedagogue and the psychologist from the village. They didn’t believe that many of my contacts ended in disaster. When Łukasz’s mother got out of prison, she showed up at our house. She was drunk, I didn’t open the door. Next time, she came transformed. With makeup on, neatly dressed, sober. I let her in. 

On visits, she made her son call her „mom”. At those times, I was „Miss Danusia” to him. 

That hurt. 

did I like them or love them? I don’t know. But I always told the kids: “You are the most important.” I gave them my heart, I spared no affection.

They said they look up to me, because when I was about fifty, I started a social rehabilitation degree. They were surprised that I was able to combine learning, mothering, and running a home. They got excited about my grades. They celebrated my bachelor’s degree, good grades on my diploma. They even took after me, got encouraged, did better in school.

What came next? In 2010, I took in two girls, Karolina and Basia. The first was seven years old, the second – twelve. Soon after, eleven-year-old Marcin joined, too. His biological mother brought him to me. She came in, looked around, and after a few minutes she said, „Well, this lady is nice. You’re staying with her. Goodbye, Marcin.”

Quite shocking, isn’t it? She dropped him off like a cuckoo. 

He couldn’t forgive her, he would lock himself in his room and cry. He became close with Paweł, his mentor. He felt honoured because he sat across from me during meals. This was the second most important place at the table. 

How did I support such a large family? For each child, the village received a grant from the county office – three thousand zlotys net. That got allotted to groceries, clothing, cosmetics, media, school supplies, a Christmas package, a vacation supplement. Little was left for day-to-day living. So, like every SOS village in Poland, we lived on donations. Some mothers argued with the management for more money. 

I hated that. Instead of asking, I preferred to be frugal. My family sent me clothes for the kids. I made preserves, grew a garden where I had parsley, carrots, strawberries, white currant, grapes. 

Major purchases required the approval of the management. To avoid this, I paid out of the pay check I was getting from the village. I would never distinguish: this is mine, this is the children’s. I threw in money for their vacations, I bought paint for renovations, a VHS player, even a computer! No one else in the village had that kind of equipment. We kept it in the hall. To play, kids had to sign up. Everyone had an hour. The eldest kept the list. 

Around 2011, three of my children finished school in Biłgoraj. They left to study in another city. In their place, I took seven-year-old Amelia. I had her baptized, got her to first communion. But her biological mom wanted her daughter back. She made an effort, started therapy, had the support of loved ones, learned to care for her child again. She would even come to Biłgoraj. Unlike other parents, she listened to my advice, and after three years got back the custody of Amelia. 

And me? I ran out of luck. In 2012, I felt a lump in my breast. I was just taking a bath, I thought it was incidental, that the bulge would go away. But it didn’t. I went to see an oncologist surgeon in Lublin. He removed the lesion. Soon, I got a diagnosis. Cancer. 

I didn’t tell the children. They’d suffered enough. 

although I was slowly losing my strength, in 2014, I adopted another pair of siblings: ten-year-old Paulina and twelve-year-old Mariusz. Some would say, three children is a lot. Not me. The house was empty and silent. We were no longer reading fairy tales together, listening to Clapton, making plasticine figurines, watching cartoons. The children shut themselves in their rooms. They preferred their cell phones, tablets. Don’t get me wrong, I used them too, I was even the first mother to do the accounts on the computer. But I wasn’t engrossed in technology. 

Now, not only childless women can become mothers, but also couples, married pairs. Still, there are no volunteers. Biłgoraj is nine SOS parents short.

I missed the other children. Fortunately, they came on weekends, for the holidays. When Aneta dropped by, we’d sit on the patio eating ice cream. Mothers from other houses couldn’t believe it. Why would an adult child come back to Biłgoraj? And how come she didn’t argue with me?

If only I didn’t have that disease. Every shower was a self-examination. I was scared because I’d read that after five years, cancer likes to come back. And it did. In 2017, at the end of my vacation, I felt a lump under my arm. I consulted a doctor. He did an ultrasound, referred me to an oncologist, I had a biopsy. And again the diagnosis: cancer, lymph node metastasis. 

I had an operation scheduled for November. I couldn’t keep lying. I called the oldest kids, they told me to stop working, said maybe I should retire. I listened. But what about Mariusz, Karolina, Paulina? They were still in my care, afraid I’d be gone. 

„What will happen to us?” they asked. 

„You’ll stay in the village. I won’t let you be separated. I promise. And remember, you will always be my children.” 

For merit, I receive crosses, medals, rings. Is this important to me? Not really. Only the children matter.

I went to the director. I suggested one village aunt to take over as mother. It was a good solution, I argued, because the children would stay in their home. 

He agreed, and I went on sick leave. In November, I had my lymph nodes excised. Then came radiotherapy. The village asked me to come back. Tempting, but I couldn’t take care of myself and the kids both. 

On April 28, 2018, I retired. 

I’d been in Biłgoraj for thirty-four years: four as an aunt, thirty as a mother. That’s a record. No one in the villages around the world has worked this long.

I moved back to Jaworzyna. I’m slowly recovering. Being alone doesn’t bother me. I finally have time for myself. I’m even planning to go to University of the Third Age, and travel to India. 

I miss the village a bit. I keep abreast of how things are going there. Now, not only childless women can become mothers, but also couples, married pairs. Still, there are no volunteers. Biłgoraj is nine SOS parents short. 

Those who work there say that I am their role model. For merit, I receive crosses, medals, rings. Is this important to me? Not really. Only the children matter. They call me, ask about my health, ask for advice. They promise to visit as soon as they get their things done. They still call me mom. 

How are their lives today?

Filip is 32, he’s an O.R. at a hospital, we write to each other. 

Maciek – 34, wife, two children. We are not in touch. 

Ewa – 32, returned from abroad, we recently talked. She’s planning a wedding, has a baby. 

Kasia is 39, has three children. She is a very good and patient mother, works in gastronomy.

Aneta – 38, one child. I admire her because she finished two post-secondary schools at the same time. Remember, when she was little, we used to talk in the laundry room? She still enjoys doing laundry because of that. Recently, for the first time, she said she loved me. 

Ala – 27 years old, she graduated from college, works in the car industry. She doesn’t like to talk about the past, we talk a lot on the phone, we visit each other.

Robert – 27 years old, after the juvie he had another conflict with the law. No contact. 

Paweł – 25 years old, works in Belgium. He trained as a pastry chef, but he’s attracted to sports. During the holidays, he works as a lifeguard in a holiday resort for children’s villages from different countries. He says he can’t imagine his life without me.

Szymon – 22 years old, studies at the polytechnic, calls me often. 

Agata – 19, she’s in high school. I am happy because she keeps in touch with Ala, they visit each other. We talk on the phone.

Iza – 27 years old, graduated from high school and ended her education there. She has four children. 

Beata – 19 years old, works as a hairdresser, she’s engaged, babysits Iza’s children. 

Łukasz – 21 years old, has a partner, two daughters he dotes on. I don’t know where he works. 

Karolina – 15 years old, third grade in high school, still living with the auntie in the village, plans to move to the youth house. We saw each other recently in Biłgoraj. 

Basia – 20 years old, has a partner and a son, currently on parental leave. 

Marcin – 19 years old, graduated from military high school, now he’s in higher education. 

Amelia – 14 years old, she is with her biological mother. 

Paulina – 14 years old, lives in the village with Karolina and the auntie, we saw each other. 

Mariusz – 16 years old, staying in a youth house. He’s excellent at maths, we write on Facebook. 

there’s one more thing. Something the kids don’t know about me. No one knows, because I kept it a secret. Just thinking about it gives me a headache. Listen to this. 

The letter I once sent to the village wasn’t the only one. Earlier, I wrote one to the Sisters of Saint Elizabeth. I explained that I would like to become one of them. That I’m disappointing my dad, I don’t know what to do with my life, and I need help choosing. 

Then, I went to the mountains, found out about Biłgoraj, which complicated my plans. I went to a confessor for help: 

„Father, I was going to join an order. But now I’m thinking about being a mom in a children’s village.” 

I heard: „You should consider this well. The sisters might not respond any time soon. You must be sure of your decision. And raising children? It is a difficult and responsible job.”

I got up, left the church, and I thought, “I can’t decide for myself. Let fate do it. Whoever writes back first, that’s where I’ll go. ” 

drawings by Piotr Kowalczyk.

The names of the children and some details of their lives have
been changed. This reportage appeared in the January issue of
the monthly magazine “Pismo. Magazyn opinii" (01/2019) under
the title Dom przy Zielonej.


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