I guess I really shouldn't be here today, writing to you. On February 11 of 2003, a doctor in Philadelphia made a serious mistake. A routine procedure turned deadly. I was dead for 3-4 minutes. A surgeon had to cut open my chest to save my life. I survived with complications. I was very depressed and I was given a drug that was not approved by the FDA. I believe I had 8 serious side effects, including a paralyzed diaphragm (which still affects breathing out of my right lung), blurred vision, a damaged thyroid and now numb feet. Depression lingered.
In September of 2005, Katrina hit our shores. I told my wife that I wanted to do something special to help someone, but I knew of the government waste and the horror stories that we never see on the news. I met a girl in a chat room. I decided to help her. A guy from Canada I also met in the room agreed to assist me with financing. I watched the things this girl would write, and I was greatly inspired. We exchanged emails a few times. Her writing in English was very good. I especially noted her grammar. We had made a connection, but neither of us knew, at that time, what a journey we were about to embark on. I forgot to mention, this girl, Slavka, is from Slovakia.
Soon after the emails began, Slavka asked me for my phone number "in case sometimes she would want to send me text messages". I had never sent anyone a message. I would write long emails to Slavka, asking her what her dreams were. She couldn't think of any having grown up in communism. Her self esteem was very low. I spent months telling her that she could be better in her life; that she could have dreams.
A few weeks after I gave Slavka my phone number, my mother's long battle with heart and lung disease was nearing a fatal end. Starting a week before Mom died (March 26), I started getting text messages from Slavka, often many per day.
After we buried Mom- I started another journey, fulfilling my mother's wish to help her demented sister living in Florida. Over a 2 month period, I spent 15 days in Florida handling my aunt's affairs and getting her placed in a home. Every day, while I was in Florida, I would get a text message to wake me up and to make me feel better. Twice, upon arriving home from my Florida trips, I was called to Beebe Hospital, in Lewes, to care for my father, who had emergency health episodes.
Sometime in early April, I decided that Slavka and I should talk to each other. She told me if we didn't understand each other, we would just hang up. Slavka has a wealth of English words in her head, but she didn't know how to pronounce them well. Our first call lasted nearly an hour. It was difficult. She was shy. I was too, I guess. But, we did it. The calls became more frequent. Then, one day, I heard another voice on the phone. It was her 4 year old son. She was letting me into her life. I learned about the loss of father when she was 12 from suicide, and the subsequent abandonment of her family by the Catholic Church. She was not allowed to be married in the Church because of her father's suicide. Slavka once told me that she doesn't pray to God, but she thanks God that she has me to discuss things with her.
I started to focus on Slavka. I needed a diversion. In June or July of 2006, I began sending Slavka packages from my family and long letters. Slavka called them "letters of optimism". I tried to give her self esteem which she badly needed.
My wife, Donna, knew about Slavka. But, one day, by chance, Slavka was at the internet cafe when I was online. We got on Yahoo IM. I called Donna to the computer. The two women chatted for 40 minutes. The next day, I connected the three of us to a phone call. Slavka was so shy. But, we talked for 30 minutes. The ice had been broken. Within a week, Slavka asked us if we would visit her in Slovakia. Her godmother had a cottage we could all stay in, but it would cost $65 a night, if that was okay. We agreed to go to Slovakia on 8/25/2006. Slavka said to me, "maybe I can do things that I want. Maybe I can be better". Donna and I started to get things to take to her. We bought American beer, candy, spices, cookbooks, and Tandy cakes. We filled almost a whole suitcase with goodies. But, I had a bigger plan for Slavka.Donna knew what I was really going to Slovakia for. And, without Donna, my plans for Slavka would fail.
About a week before we were scheduled to go, the airline scare occurred. Donna was very afraid. She told me to go alone or not go at all. It was a big decision for Donna. Then, I started having second thoughts. I wondered if Slavka's culture would allow me to do what I wanted to do for her. I wondered if we would like each other in person. The day before the trip, I called Slavka. She told me that my voice was not smiling. She knew. We talked for an hour. After the call, I began to pack. I started feeling a little better. I called my friend in Canada and told him about my fears. He told me that everything would be okay, and in the end, Donna and I would come home smiling.
I drove Donna to work on the 25th. After work, we went straight to the airport. An hour before takeoff, Donna asked if she could just go home. She was convinced that she was going to die. We hit bad turbulence for an hour near Ireland. Then, we missed a connection in Prague, forcing us to stay there for 7 hours. Finally, we got a flight to Kosice, Slovakia, where we arrived at 10:00 PM. We still had about a 2 hour drive by car, stick shift, no less. We arrived in Poprad, Slovakia at almost midnight. We had been up for most of 36 hours. Slavka was waiting for us. We exchanged gifts and everything seemed okay. We spent the night in her flat, while she went to her mother's flat to sleep. The next day, after car problems, we drove about 75 minutes to the cottage. Slavka cooked for us. It had been a long day for everyone. Donna went to bed. Slavka was going to go to bed too. I told Slavka that we needed to talk. I spent the next 3 hours talking to a wonderful person. I did have a plan for her. I bought her English language CD's to help her get better at speaking and to teach her son. But, she would need a computer to use the CD's. We talked about that. Then I told her that we would go to the Academy in Poprad to enroll her in a course to get her a license in massage therapy. She listened, she laughed and she almost cried.
Slovakian women are supposed to be strong and not show emotions. For the next several days, I continued my quest. Donna told me to back off several times, but I knew what I was doing. I knew that I had to let Slavka make a choice. I couldn't tell her what to do. When I felt resistance, I would change directions in my presentation.
On Wednesday morning, we left the cottage and headed to Poprad. We went immediately to the Academy. They needed 10 people to have the course. Slavka was the 10th. She applied. Later, we went to an electronics store and bought her a computer. Donna bought her a pair of jeans. When I wasn't looking, Slavka went to a store and bought me some tea. In the evening, we went to a restaurant for dinner of traditional Slovakian food. We had a flight at 5 AM on Thursday morning, so I didn't want to go to sleep. I feared that I wouldn't wake up or I would be groggy. So, we stayed up all night. Back at Slavka's flat, she and I looked at pictures of her and her family for two hours. Finally, it was time to go. It was 1:30 AM on Thursday, and we still had a 2 hour drive to the airport. We hugged and said goodbye. I put some money in Slavka's hand, just like my Mom would do after we visited her. I saw Slavka's eyes were tearing and her lips were trembling. She said "I hope you can come back to Slovakia next year". Donna and I were awake for 43 hours. We came home smiling!!!!
On our way home, Slavka sent me a text message. She was quitting her bad job. I didn't tell you about her bad job. You can guess what it is. A week later, Slavka was having second thoughts about quitting. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it. She told me, "I don't know". I called her immediately. She told me that without that job, she would be homeless. Wow! Does that put things into perspective? I reassured Slavka that I would not abandon her. We are sending her money each month until she finishes school. Oh, the school started last Thursday(early February 2007). She is so excited. We are, too. I should mention that I am also helping Slavka improve her mothering skills. I bought a program here in the States to assist behavior problems with children. I am having the same program sent to Slavka. If she cannot understand, I can help her or I can call customer service and get help from the experts. The company knows what I am doing, and they are supportive.
Donna told me later that she has never seen me challenge anyone like I challenged Slavka. I told Slavka before I came to Slovakia, that I would challenge her like no one ever had in her life. And, Donna could tell that Slavka loved it. What conversations we had!! We spent hours talking about verb tenses in our languages, talking about European history, cooking, medicine, and life.
Her English is getting so much better. Her pronunciation is nearly flawless.
In fact, she pronounces words the way they should be pronounced by rule. We Americans are saying the words incorrectly. And, she is using words as I do when I write to her. She is paying attention.
Donna tells everyone now that we Americans live like "pigs". Slavka's flat is 21 feet by 21 feet. It would fit into our bedroom. Slavka doesn't have a coffee pot, yet. She uses recycled paper on a roll for toilet paper. She walks everywhere, including 30 minutes to the market. I read that 67% of people her age (28) cannot find work in Slovakia. The employment office wouldn't help her with schooling because she was "too smart".
I wonder if I didn't die three years ago for a reason. Was I meant to make a difference in Slavka's life? I am not sure. I do know that what I have done, with Donna's help, has given me a new outlook on life. I feel great!!
This is a great story. But, it wouldn't be complete if I didn't let you hear some of Slavka's own words. These are some things she wrote to me by text messages in the past few weeks. She is paying for the service, so her English suffers to save a letter or two:
"I am still excited too. I wish you could stay even longer. Nobody did anything for me like you both did. I feel like in fairytale.
"I'm going to pay for school tomorrow.TY very much! I consider me as Lucky Person, thanks to you".
"I have to tell you my life seems so much easier after I've met you and you helped me .
I can't tell you how much I'm thankful to you."
"I hope you can be proud of me. I don't want to be a disappoint to you. I will work harder. You have made my life more beautiful."
But, why, you ask, am I telling you this story? I hope it has made you smile and feel good today. But, I don't feel like my job is complete. I wonder if I can do more for Slavka. We will help her find a job. If she shows me that she wants to be better, I'd like to bring Slavka and her son to visit us here in Delaware next year. I think we will visit her again. But, I'd like to do more. Can we help other girls like Slavka? Can we perhaps use Slavka to help other girls? Slavka knows that her payment to me for assisting her is to help someone else, when she can: "Pay it Forward". I would like to find out if there are funds out there to maybe start a foundation that would give others a chance. My mother was born in Europe, in Ireland. It is not the same as the former communist block countries. But, I could be like Slavka if I were born in Slovakia. So could all of you. Slavka is just like you and I. Language and culture separate us to a degree, but otherwise we are alike. I have seen what two people can do to change a person's life.
Wouldn't it be great if we could all impact others as Donna and I have done?
And, we have erased negative feelings that one Eastern European family may have had about Americans. Good will is a gift. There must be a way to make an impact on other humans, as we did.
Brief Update: Upon our arrival back in the States, Donna rushed to the mall to buy some things for Slavka. One of these items was a coffee pot. One morning, I received a text message "Wow! Wow! I can't believe it! I've always wanted a coffee pot". At Christmas, we sent a box that weighed 28 pounds with 25 gifts for Slavka's entire family. Christmas had turned into an ordinary day for her, but not this year. We received a package from Slovakia, as well. We have jointly supported this girl with a monthly stipend to help her pay her bills while studying. She did pass her massage course, in fact 3 courses, and now has a license to practice, but she is only working part-time. Her mother has developed terminal cancer, and she must care for her and her 5 year old son. We are enrolling her in a course for reflexology(completed) in September of 2007, and now she tells me that she wants to study to be a nurse's assistant. None of this was on the radar screen 18 months ago. She is turning the corner toward success, and we feel great about it.
Update, March 2008: We have continued to work with Slavka, but we've added another young lady, Anetka, in the Czech Republic (Anetka will have her own story, but not here). My family had planned to spend New Years in Prague with both girls, but my wife and daughter were injured in a head-on crash in October so plans were cancelled. Anetka, from the first day I met her wanted a hug from me, so I convinced Donna to let me visit both girls last month. I had to work around Anetka's exams at her university, but finally I selected the dates. A few days before I left, I sent Slavka a message that I'd love to give her a hug and take her to dinner for her birthday, which was February 12. She told me that I have wonderful thoughts.
When I asked her if we had a date, she couldn't believe it! I flew to Prague, spent a few days with Anetka in the town where she goes to school, and then both of us boarded a train to Slovakia. We did have dinner with Slavka, and the two girls became instant friends. Slavka gave us both a massage. She is very good at her skill. There is a Whirlpool factory in Slavka's city, and I am talking to the US headquarters to perhaps send clients her way as a public relations effort. Slavka asked me if I would want to go to the hospital to visit her mother who is still suffering from cancer. I obliged. (As a side note, the hospital in Slovakia is a sharp contrast to what we are used to, in fact I saw no patients on monitors).
Slavka's mother was in a room with two other patients, a man and a woman.
Mixed sexes in rooms doesn't happen in the USA either. When I mentioned this to Slavka, she said that she understood. She watches Dr. House. Slavka's mother was obviously moved. I have Catholic masses prayed everyday for Slavka's mother. She cannot believe that someone from America would care about her. Crying, Slavka's mother told me that she wants Donna and me to return when she is better, and we can all dance together in a mountain cottage. Look at what we've done. We've brought two families together from halfway across the globe. What diplomacy! I should also mention that Slavka has begun to give others in Slovakia confidence in an online chat. She tells them that they too can do things if they try, just like I've told her. Slavka is "Paying it Forward". Slavka told me that I am the first person who ever believed in her. I gave her courage!
I've attached a portion of an internet chat I recently had with Slavka:
Slavka: yes i am calm..with the right people.
Slavka: i have to tell you that everythings getting to better since i know you..
Pete: i hope so that's what this was all about..
Slavka: you gave me courage..you believed i could make things happen
Pete: i wish you could get a good job.you've changed a lot..i'm proud
Slavka:.i started to chat with slovak people last week..on slovak web site..
Slavka: i can give courage to others..wow!
Slavka: since i know you..
Slavka: i can make people to do things.
Slavka: and thanks to you i got to know another great person in my life
Pete: and hopefully you will meet many more
Slavka: ..and trying to help them..or at least make them feel better
Slavka: i am sure i will meet many interesting people..i love to hear from people, about their lifes and problems
June 23, 2008- Today I received an email from Alzbeta at the Whirlpool factory in Slovakia. I had been trying for 4 months to reach someone in Public Relations to share Slavka's story. I began with calls to Whirlpool Headquarters in Benton Harbor, Michigan, then to Europe Headquarters in Italy, until I was finally able to get a name in Slovakia. Alzbeta asked me if I could give her Slavka's mobile number. Whirlpool wanted to meet with Slavka and try to help her. A meeting was arranged for the next day.
Whirlpool gave Slavka a temporary assignment doing massages for employees 2 days a week for 3 weeks. It was a start. After the 3 weeks, Whirlpool will sit down with Slavka to decide how to help her further, hopefully full time.
Alzbeta told me that she too likes to help people who have hard lives, and that maybe she and I could help Slavka together!
July 12, 2008 Slavka's mother died this morning at 2:00 AM. She was suffering from cancer for two years. May she rest in Peace! I've sent an offering to the Salesian Missions. Their priests will pray every day in Rome for Slavka's mother's soul.
Slavka's assignment with Whirlpool was for 3 weeks, and now she is unemployed again. She loved it there. When Alzbeta gets back from holiday, I will ask her if Whirlpool can find something else for Slavka. In the meantime, we are off to Canada to meet with my friend John. We have much to discuss about "our projects," including ways to make our efforts more worthy.
Into the fall of 2008, Slavka is still trying to land a good job, hopefully a massage job. There could be some openings in the Tatry Mountains, a resort area near her, but it's a long train commute. She needs someone to care for her son. She managed to find a job at a call center and stocking inventory at a grocery store. The hours are very long. She earns at $2.00/hour without benefits. The call center job ends in mid-November.
Christmas 2008 is bittersweet. Slavka has filed for divorce. She has a boyfriend who treats her nicely, maybe for the first time in her life. A great job opportunity has been given to the boyfriend. He wants Slavka to move to another city with him, but Slavka is afraid of change. Maybe, in time, she will decide to move. The boyfriend now visits on weekends when he is in town. In the meantime, Slavka has found a job at a hospital. She works long hours again for little money, but now she has health insurance! In February 2009, Slavka has been approached by a businessman about working for him in a massage shop. Maybe her dream job is near.
To Make a Donation, Click Here.
I met Slavka in December of 2005. We started exchanging emails. I watched as her English improved. She was watching how I wrote to her! Slavka introduced me to the world of text messaging, just as my mother was dying in the hospital. I know that she wanted to be with me to help comfort me. You'll read later how destiny plays a role in our lives.
A friend, John from Canada, decided to help me to get Slavka on her feet. Slavka got married at a young age due to a pregnancy. Her husband didn't work. He spent all of the money Slavka earned on cigarettes and alcohol. Slavka didn't have the opportunity to go to university. That was about to change. I flew to Slovakia with my wife in August of 2006. We spent a week with Slavka's family. On the last day, I took Slavka to the community college in her city. She wanted to study massage therapy. I enrolled her. We then went to a mall where I bought Slavka a computer, her first. I bought her a pair of jeans, as she had only one pair. There were a lot of tears that night as I left for the airport.
John and I helped Slavka with money for almost a year. She received three diplomas in massage. I hooked her up with Whirlpool from here in the States to a factory in her city. They paid her to give employee massages, a great job at 12 euros an hour. But, the economy dried up, and so did that employee benefit at Whirlpool. Slavka worked for a few local merchants giving massages, but soon they all went out of business.
A divorce was in the works for Slavka. Her husband had moved to the capital city to earn money, but very little came home. Slavka and her young son were on their own. John, my wife, daughter, and I had planned to spend New Year's 2008 in Prague, with Aneta, Slavka and a few of the girls John was assisting own his own. John hurt his back, so he couldn't fly. My wife and daughter were in a car accident. That left only me. I called Slavka and asked her if we could have dinner together on her birthday, February 12. She thought I was joking. I flew into Prague on February 11, met Aneta for the first time, then Aneta and I took a train to Slovakia. A surprised Slavka did have guests for her birthday.
I mentioned destiny. Slavka took me to the hospital to meet her mother who was dying from cancer. Slavka's mother was so happy to see me. She couldn't speak English, but she told Slavka that "soon we would all dance together in the mountains", because she was going to beat the cancer. She died a few weeks later. Slavka was now parentless. Her father committed suicide when she was 12. Neither parent ever told Slavka that they loved her. How sad! But, Slavka told me that she tells her son that she loves him every day.
(A side note about the hospital...there were three to a room, two women and a man. There were no monitors like we have. Slavka's mother had just had hip surgery. There was a chain hanging from the ceiling, forming a triangle. A cut off broom handle was for Slavka's mother to lift herself from the bed. Later, I mentioned the conditions to Slavka. She told me she knows American hospitals, as she watches Dr. House)
Slavka currently works as an intern in the hospital. She works 50-60 hours a week earning only 2.5 euros an hour. She has started to study to be a nurse, but it could take 7 years as a part time student. If Slavka's Dream can find a way, perhaps Slavka could study full time and still care for her son.