What drives people to do good things? What makes them want to give of their time and energy for the good of others? What’s in it for them?
These questions, and variations thereof, have been running around in my head for the last 10 days as I’ve posted my daily ambassadorial pleas for money for Tarnabod és Mi’s fundraising drive. I was honoured to be one of ten ambassadors involved in the daily posts that have raised more than twice the original target of one million forints. Delighted as I am at its success, I suspect I got more from the experience than I gave.
I wrote my posts each morning, my first task of the day. As I looked through photographs of my trip to the village and the gallery on TaMi’s Facebook page, I was reminded again and again of the uncomplicated joy of being. The smiles, the laughs, the happiness, and all despite the poverty and the destitution. The key driver behind what the folks at TaMi do is to show the kids, some 250 in all, that they have alternatives. They don’t have to live the same lives their parents have lived. There is a way out.
I managed to snag 30 minutes with Katalin Szemere, the super-busy woman behind TaMi, to ask her how it all began.
Some 9 years ago, Kata was working for Népszabadság, a large Hungarian daily newspaper. (Much to the shock of many, the paper was shut down in 2016 – but that’s another story.) The Chief Press Officer for the Order of Malta invited her friend and colleague Gabriella Valaczkay to the village to do a piece on it. It published on 11 December 2011. [All I can find is a German translation of the original article on fellow-ambassador Clemens Prínz’s blog, Pusztaranger.] Gabriella had never seen such poverty in Hungary and returned to the paper to tell her friend Kata that something had to be done. The pair took over a spare office and asked their colleagues to donate stuff for the village. They hadn’t a clue what to collect other than warm clothes and food. They took everything offered from party dresses to bags of sugar. This was the start of Tarnabod és Mi.
They went once or twice each year in the first four years or so. When Gabriella moved to Germany, Kata continued the collections. Then, in 2015, she decided to shake things up a little. TaMi volunteers started cooking for the entire village once a month in winter and every other month in summer. Feeding a crowd of 600+ is no mean feat but this small group of volunteers (no more than 20) does it regularly and with open hearts.
Volunteers come mainly from Budapest and Debrecen. Some were introduced to TaMi through friends, others found their own way through the Facebook page. Some visit just once. Others go on every visit.
I’m seriously impressed that they haven’t set themselves up as judge and jury of who might be more or less deserving of help. TaMi’s policy is to give to everyone. Whatever food they bring, they bring enough for everyone. Enough for every family, for every child. Of course, clothes and shoes are different and larger items, too. There is a high demand for twin pushchairs in the village – single ones as well, of course, but Tarnabod is home to a lot of twins. And as many houses don’t have running water, the type of washing machine that doesn’t need to be plumbed in is also high on their wish list.
But it’s not all about basic needs like food and clothes, TaMi is very much about doing what they can to ensure that these kids get to break out of the cycle that their parents and grandparents find themselves in. When volunteers visit, they talk about their professions, about their jobs, about their lives. They want to get the kids interested in training to be chefs, or carpenters, or tailors. Two of the kids are on scholarships to the School of Acrobatics in Budapest. Another, Kata tells me, is a great singer.
‘Norbi needs someone to teach him, to train him, so that he can audition for music schools. All he wants to do is sing. And he’s really good.’
There’s a couple of promising footballers in the village, too. They need mentors. Training. Scholarships. Hope.
With TaMi providing role models and the Order of Malta providing the education, more kids are going to secondary school. “One girl has been accepted to a university,” Kata tells me lighting up a couple of watts brighter than usual. This is a woman committed to a cause; her enthusiasm is infectious.
Kata speaks matter-of-factly about the work TaMi does. She openly admits that she’s had to learn so much.
‘It’s not easy to help and to do it well,” she says. “The first thing we had to learn was never to expect gratitude. The second was never to bring anything we wouldn’t use ourselves at home.’
TaMi (and indeed other organisations like them) are too often seen as one step removed from the rubbish bin when it comes to clearing out closets. Dirty, torn clothes, shoes with holes in the soles, and broken utensils, all thrown away. Wash the clothes, mend the holes, resole the shoes, fix the utensils, and then donate. As Kata reminds me,
“They [the Tarnabodians] are not happy about having to accept other people’s stuff; it’s hard for them, too.”
Collecting money is a complicated thing. Helped initially by Péter Horgas at Nemzeti Minimum, another TaMi volunteer, since January 2020 they have their own egyesület (association). Kata says she’s “over the moon” at the success of the campaign. “The first couple of days in particular were amazing,” she said. To exceed the original target in 48 hours. was some achievement.
So much of what happens in the village is based on cooperation. TaMi started visiting around the same time as the Order of Malta took over the gyerekház (a pre-kindergarten for new-borns to 3-year-olds), the kindergarten, and the primary school. In regular contact with the school principal and others in the village, Kata checks what’s needed as she plans each visit. Teachers will also be helping to choose the 20 kids who get to go on the summer camp they’re planning for 2021. What a difficult decision to have to make. How to choose 20 kids from the 200 or so old enough to go?
Our conversation draws to a close. Kata has plenty to do. Her Facebook talk show, where she interviews all sorts of people about all sorts of things, is currently on hold but as a freelance journalist, she’s still writing, when she’s not hosting her radio show Presszó on 90.9 Jazzy or recording podcasts or videos for YouTube. TaMi takes about a quarter of her time and energy, time and energy she willingly volunteers to make a difference.
It was a humbling experience, being an ambassador for this cause. Thanks to you all for donating and making a difference. Many of you don’t know TaMi, or don’t know Hungary, or can’t begin to imagine such poverty. But you know me. Some of you donated on the strength of our acquaintance/friendship and for that I’m grateful.
Remember those pushchairs and those washing machines. Perhaps your company or organisation could sponsor one. Or maybe you have one you no longer need. The Gyerekház is in dire need of a big freezer, too, so if you have one in good working order that you no longer need, they’ll happily take it. Remember as well that the kids need mentors and help to get placements so that their talents can be nurtured to give them the leverage they need to break free and pave new paths. If you have a talent, share it. If you have connections, consider sharing them, too. If you have time and want to get involved, contact TaMi to see what needs to be done and how you can help. And there’s still time to donate…
All photos courtesy of Tarnabod és Mi