Interview with Ábel Lukács Kiss, Director of the Dorcas Ministries
Along with the companies of Debrecen BSC Roundtable, United Call Centers is also supporting Dorcas Ministries’ Blue Bucket campaign this year and the Advent fundraising, which will run until 20 December. In the following interview, we talked to the director of the charitable organization, Ábel Lukács Kiss, who shared his thoughts with us on topics like social responsibility, charitable initiatives, and their current projects.
Could you briefly tell us about the history of the Dorcas Ministries?
Originally from the Netherlands, the organization is interesting in that its foundation is linked to an event that is very important to Hungarians, the 1956 revolution and the fight for freedom. These days the pastor of Andijk, a small village in North Netherlands, was a man who had Hungarian ancestries. His sermon was attended by the then 11-year-old founder of our organization, Dirk Jan Groot. At the end of his sermon, when the pastor gave an account of the events in Budapest at the time, many people, including Dirk Jan’s father, wept, what was never happened before.
At home, they talked about it further, and almost as a child he understood that Hungary needed help; he still has the magazines he collected in the fifties and sixties about the situation in Hungary, and he was determined to help our people when he grew up. Of course, many things happened in his life, and he founded the Dorkász Service after he was thirty. Initially, in the early eighties, it was a kind of demonstration organization: they spent nights at Romanian, Ukrainian and Hungarian embassies raising awareness of the plight of these peoples, sending thousands of postcards to assure their fellow human beings on the other side of the Iron Curtain of their solidarity.
How did the road to the present lead from 1956?
The starting motif of the story reappears when Dirk Jan first visited Hungary around 1986. He set off for Transylvania, via Debrecen, but stopped first in Vienna, and when they crossed the border and he saw the name of the country on the sign, he remembered the promise he had made as a child, as an adult, and that was when fundraising activities began, initially as a distinctly underground movement: Some 150 families, teachers, parishes and pastors were recruited to help get the food and clothing sent by the International Dorkas to where it was most needed.
The Hungarian organization was officially founded in 1991, exactly 30 years ago, and by then we had already established a presence in 20 other countries, building a very substantial relief network in the Middle East and Africa. Dorcas is now one of the largest aid organizations in the Netherlands, and we also play a very important role in Europe, with more than 200 employees and tens of thousands of volunteers, trying to reach all sectors of society. The organization has more than 30 donation shops, and hundreds of trucks deliver donations from the warehouses to all corners of the world every year. So, from a little boy’s dream, a small underground initiative has grown into a global aid organization that helps around 350,000 people in need every year. Based in Debrecen, Hungary, the Dorkász Service is currently active in 35 municipalities.
How long have you been operating independently?
We became independent in 2016, so we became a Hungarian charitable foundation. Dorcas has always had the goal of building local communities with local participants, so that everyone takes care of their own, not living off donations from the West, the Netherlands, the US. That’s how I got involved with the organization: I started as an Executive Director and Project Manager in 2015, and now I’ve been the Foundation’s Director for 4 years. And our goal is to help Hungarians with Hungarian donations. My experience is that there is plenty to donate here, whether it’s durable food, clothes, or school supplies. And I am very pleased to see that so many people get behind all our fundraising activities, many people donate regularly, and unfortunately, there is also a lot to donate, as we talked about last time.
The place where we operate plays a very important role in our domestic activities, because while in other countries Dorkász is a bit of a warehouse and a printer, after the regime change we were able to buy a campsite in Erdőspuszta, on the outskirts of Debrecen, with Dutch help. Over the last 30 years thousands of people have camped here, and every year disadvantaged groups come. It is important to mention this because, as I said before, in addition to providing aid, we also have a very important task of community building.
Our basic principle is not to “maintain” poverty, but to solve it. That is why we have, for example, training in art therapy, drama education, self-awareness, and communication. So we help with one hand, and with the other, we reach out to those in need and help them break out of poverty.
I’m not a sociologist, but I know that people living in extreme poverty are often ashamed of their situation, which can be linked to an instinctive reaction of denial. How can you help in such cases?
As well as going to help where the problem is greatest, in the long term we can work with those who are partners in change. Those who don’t want to improve and keep making excuses are heading downhill. We can start down the road with those who have self-criticism and are open to improvement and change.
There are quite a lot of stereotypes in people’s minds about individual responsibility.
I would refer to the majority of society, which is ourselves: if we want to change a habit, it is very hard work, whether it is to live a healthier lifestyle or simply to live a different rhythm of life. It’s all in the mind, as they say. We have to put a tremendous amount of energy into self-criticism, making the right choices on a regular and ongoing basis, and changing our attitudes and our thinking. And the opportunity is there for everyone. Today we are no longer talking about assessing needs, but about assessing opportunities: what can you add, what can you change? And obviously, we help, because these people need a partner, they need a supporter.
It is of course a very slow and gradual process, but if we see them as partners, their self-image will change. We cannot influence this, because such things have to come from within, but through camping, for example, young people can see things, patterns, and models that may be different from what they see at home, and they can say that this change is worth the energy they put in because they will have a job, for example, and money.
How does that work in practice?
Perhaps we should approach it from the welfare side and look at what is extreme poverty? Not having adequate housing conditions, no water, no bathroom, no kitchen, no proper locking of windows, no leaking roofs. These are difficult conditions that completely transform the daily lives of people living in extreme poverty. You have to go to the end of the street to fetch water several times a day, you can’t heat the house properly, which makes the children sick all the time, and so on.
In addition to housing, the regular purchase of adequate food is also a problem, since, if we look at the elderly, for example, the old-age pension of 24,000 HUF, which is the basic old-age pension, is enough for 5-10 days. There is also the problem of buying medicines to cure themselves, to keep themselves fit, and then there is the question of mobility: do I have a car, a bicycle, can I catch the bus, can I get out of the house? These problems are interlinked, which is why assistance is so important.
Donations, be it clothes, food, cleaning products, are a huge help in everyday life. And what are we communicating to them? That there is hope, that you are not alone, that we are here with you and for you. It is a powerful force when we give love: it makes a difference, it tells us that this is not the end, because there is someone to rely on for those in need. We are present in 35 municipalities, with hundreds of volunteers, who are always encouraged to maintain personal contact with our beneficiaries because it is these friendships that result in any change.
What is the function of community building?
Community building is at least as important as providing aid. I mentioned that we organize camps for families in need, for the elderly, or children, these can mean a lot to them. They can learn self-awareness, which is not part of their schooling, and communication skills. Art education and drama education help them to come out of their isolation and to come to terms with their circumstances, their disadvantaged status.
I have real examples. We have involved children from reformatories in volunteer work, painting a widow’s house with their help. It was an incredible feeling for them as we talked, or when press officers from different media outlets would shake hands and shake everyone’s hand about how fantastic a job they were doing – people who had done time for various crimes and were now valuable members of society. You could see on their faces how their self-image and self-esteem had improved in almost a matter of minutes.
Besides the Blue Bucket fundraising campaign, what other current projects do you have?
Our family care project provides winter and summer clothes, school supplies, and food to over 250 families. In our elderly care project, we currently have 103 beneficiaries, typically people living in extreme poverty, alone, in poor health. So no one would visit them if we didn’t bring them a monthly package of food and cleaning products. Our most recent initiative is Jótékonytér.hu (~BeneficialSpace.hu), which was inspired by the long-standing epidemic situation, it’s a fundraising website.
The way it works in practice is that we take out a charity box to communities – companies, for example – and everyone puts in it what they can find at home and still find useful. And we put the donations collected in the boxes on this website. It’s a bit like an indirect charity fair. You can buy everything from books to children’s clothes: on the one hand, you buy second-hand stuff, so you’re protecting the environment, and on the other hand, you can’t pay before you pay without choosing the target group you want to support with your payment – so all the money goes back to the people in need.
I’ve already mentioned camping and prison missions: these are really about giving young people experiences, and prison missions are about visiting correctional institutions through weekend programs, summer camps. Obviously, the people in the correctional institutions can’t go out to the camps, so we bring the camps to them.
You can of course join these programs, even as a volunteer for the locals, but we also welcome donations from everyone, as we need financial support to make all our programs happen. All the information about these possibilities is available on our website, Dorcas.hu, you can support us in several ways, by credit card, bank transfer, or even through PayPal. And of course, we are very happy to welcome all those who can support our projects, even if only with a few thousand forints, but on a monthly basis. This is a great help for us, as it makes it easier to set up our operational plan for the year with predictable and plannable support.
I would like to refer back to the prison mission: a situation where volunteers have to meet prisoners can be a challenge, especially in the beginning. How can this be handled well?
It’s a specialized area, we also had to learn to handle it, but now we are in our fifth year of visiting these institutions and we have developed a very good relationship with all the professional staff who do extraordinary things for the inmates. Of course, a pastor, a mentor teacher, an experiential education worker all have to be equally prepared for this situation. We help volunteers both to prepare and to process the experience. One of the important missions of the Dorkas Service is to bring these life situations to the attention of the majority of society. An important interface for this is the “Lives Among Us” section of our website, where we present some of these life stories in a number of short videos, with short descriptions, to open a window to the world beyond the bubble for everyone, and to let more people see what life in extreme poverty means here in Hungary.
How can the majority of society help? Why is it important to donate?
Think about how much food, how many clothes, how many toys, books, cappuccinos do we really need to buy to be happy? How much unnecessary stuff do we have in the attic, in the garage, under the bed? If, as a member of the majority society, we regularly shared the goods that are superfluous to our daily lives, I believe that the problem of poverty could be completely solved. The ball is in our court, not in the court of the needy. Those of us who have something to give, however little it may seem, have a duty to steer the world towards a more sustainable, more just path, and to make our children and grandchildren aware of the need to give a chance to those in society who cannot really help being born where they are, but they are willing to change.