Down a small lane in what feels like the middle of nowhere is Posadówek, a tiny village in the west of Poland. With its fields, aging Soviet-era buildings and single road, it could easily be mistaken for just another rural outpost. But in reality, life-changing activities for both people and dogs are taking place here.
Those who live in the Posadówek community are part of the social co-operative Wielka Pomoc, which translates as “Great Help.” The co-op’s main focus is to provide a shelter and rehoming center for local homeless dogs as well as a reintegration center for some of Poland’s most socially excluded people. It is part of a nationwide movement of similar social co-ops that have been set up to help the “life-wrecked,” people who have become enmeshed in problems such as homelessness, substance addiction or crime.
The movement was founded by the Barka Foundation for Mutual Help, a local NGO (non-governmental organization), as a solution for the many who suffered in the Polish society that emerged after the end of communism in 1989.
The underlying idea is to help people reconnect with healthy ways of life by having occupations and places to live, which gives them a sense of purpose and security. In Posadówek, co-op members look after dogs, work that is turning out to be both productive and healing.
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Hieronim, 36, had immigrated to Ireland, living in Dublin and supporting himself by doing manual labor until an accident made it impossible for him to work. He then developed a heavy drinking problem and ended up living on the streets. Eventually, he was found by Barka, which in 2012 helped him return to Poland and arranged therapy for him; since then, he hasn’t had a drink. Now the leader of the Posadówek co-op, Hieronim created the community’s dog shelter, which is financially self-sustaining and uses a local eco-friendly fuel.
Dogs are usually brought to the co-op by local authorities (barking erupts in the kennels when the council’s dog warden comes in). They are quarantined until they receive a medical check-up; once they’re cleared, they are moved to the main shelter. “First we feed the dogs, because they are always skinny and unhealthy, and then we clean and vaccinate them, then we give them a tracking chip,” Hieronim says.
People come to the shelter to adopt; in 2014, 128 dogs were rehomed. Hieronim feels that its size is a plus. “It’s a small dog shelter, so people feel happier adopting with us.” He mentions that a much bigger, state-run dog shelter in nearby Poznan houses more than 600 dogs, yet doesn’t rehome as many as Posadówek.
Hieronim has had training in veterinary practices, and the co-op employs an outside veterinarian. Tomasz, another co-op member who plays a large part in tending to the dogs, has also received training in advanced dog care. Very much a hands-on carer, Tomasz has positive relationships with many of the dogs, developed during his daily work of thoroughly cleaning their kennels and bringing their food. He also takes time to get to know each dog individually.
Joanna is Tomasz’s partner, the co-op’s cook and the community’s only woman. She once had a well-paid job, but an aggressive, alcoholic husband made life chaotic. When she left him, she came to the co-op, where, she says, life is simpler and harder, but where she is much happier.
Joanna has strong bonds with some of the dogs, particularly a Rottweiler who was brought to the shelter because he was so aggressive. “Sometimes an owner chooses the dog, and sometimes the dog chooses the owner,” she says as she puts her hands through the cage and strokes the Rottweiler. She describes the dog’s unfortunate past, and the relationship they now have.
There is clearly a feeling of solidarity between the dogs and the co-op’s members, all whom have been through bad times but now support each other through their individual recoveries and reconnections to regular lives.
Hieronim talks about why he founded the Posadówek co-op, why it is important and why he is passionate about helping animals: “It is a good feeling for the people who [have lived] on the streets; they have empathy for the dogs. They’re animals, we are human, but it’s the same—if you don’t have a home, it’s the same bad feeling. My idea is that homeless people understand how the dogs feel. If the people work with and for the dogs, they start living better lives themselves.”