human development, social justice and sustainable social systems

Building the Czech Caritas

Memories to share on our Caritas Day

On November 3, Day of Saint Martin de Porres, the Caritas Europa network celebrates the motivation behind our daily work to help people in need. Today, a long-time colleague from Caritas Czech Republic, Iva Kuchyňková, shares her journey within Caritas.

I started my career in the business department of a clothing company in Moravia in the late 1980s. I made contracts for the supply of garments (and I showed our clothes as a model myself). During that time, the company decided to turn off an old mainframe computer and replace it with a first desktop one, a great rarity in the then Czechoslovakia.

In 1990, shortly after the Velvet Revolution, a group of enthusiasts in Brno, the capital of South Moravia, founded Caritas. It followed the activities of the organization of the same name, which had been closed years ago by the communist regime. The group was made of people who wanted to help the sick, the poor and the defenseless, but had no experience and often no education, but great enthusiasm. That dream and the fact that this work was so meaningful to them often led them to leave better paid jobs. That is how Caritas open its first branch in Brno, on the ground floor of an old house under Petrov, near the cathedral. One of its first tasks was to help children affected by the Chernobyl accident.

Caritas then received a desktop computer from Siemens, but no one could even turn it on. That was why a friend from our parish invited me to come and help, since I was using a similar one at work. That is how I joined that party of passionate people. Soon after, the first regional and parish Caritas was established in South Moravia.

A new house for mothers

The former head of the Brno Regional Caritas and current director of the Diocesan Caritas Brno, Oldřich Haičman, appointed me to establish a house for mothers with children in need. We reconstructed of an old apartment building. The result was a number of tastefully and modernly furnished apartments – a welcoming environment for housing mothers from socially oppressive conditions who were caring for their children of various ages. This was a breakthrough idea, since until then it was customary to help only mothers with children under three years old. This was named the House of St. Margaret and there mother were given the space and time to resolve their difficult situation and to receive psychological support and counseling.

I decided to complete my education in this field. At the same time I was running the house, I was also studying charity and legal work and later a master’s degree in social pedagogy at Masaryk University in Brno.

A piece of my spirit remains in the House of St. Margaret and the old courtyard has become a cozy garden of lasting memories.

A growing Caritas

Following the example of the House of St. Margaret, other houses were built in Třebíč, Blansko, Hodonín, Zlín, Plzeň. Some other houses and similar facilities were built also according to government initiatives (e.g. in Vysoké Mýto). Concept took the lead and students from the Norwegian University of Uppsala started to come to us for information.

A system was developed and became a “pro-family” service. Mothers were leaving the asylum house for social housing and social houses (which preceded recent successful Housing First project in Brno). Above all, we wanted children not to be taken from their mothers.

In the meanwhile, Caritas created other services – field care services for seniors and incurably ill hospices. In the 1990s, at a time of widespread enthusiasm, it was possible to obtain sponsorship donations from private companies. We organised charity fashion shows (in clothes from charity wardrobes), balls and church concerts.

In South Moravia, Caritas offers the largest spectrum of social and health services, and they still work today – and at a higher professional level than at the time of its origin. It was the state that began to demand professionalism. Service standards have been introduced at the national level, as a set of conditions that each project in the network of services had to meet.

I became a guarantor of social assistance for mothers with children. Within the Caritas framework, a national expert boards (advisory bodies) were established in 1993. Together, they dealt with legislative and practical issues. They are still working. Regional boards at diocesan level have also been set up to share best practices with them.

I am now dealing with these issues at national level within Caritas Czech Republic. We have set up “policy advocacy”, as an effort to change legislation in favor of people in need.

As demands for expertise increase, so do the demands for charity workers. In this situation, the project “To Quality in Charity”, supported in cooperation with Caritas Europe (CE), came to the aid. Thanks to it, we opened up new opportunities. We feel supported, but we also feel free, no one limits us. Finally, I was delegated to the Caritas Europa Action Group.

From a handful of enthusiasts in the 1990s, Caritas Czech Republic has developed into a professional organisation with more than seven thousand employees. We run 20% of the social services in the Czech Republic and we are able to push for legislative changes.

I have always cared about defending people’s rights. The slogan of President T. G. Masaryk “Truth wins” has always helped me. To this I add, according to Václav Havel, “Love and Truth Wins”.