Radek Laci: Children in Czech state institutions crave freedom but have no idea what to do with it
Radek Laci (born in 1991) was placed immediately after his birth in an infant institution in Louny and then lived in a children's home in Česká Lípa from the age of six. After graduating from agricultural secondary school he got a degree in marketing communications from the University of Finance and Administration in Prague.
He is a co-founder of the "One Second After" (Vteřina poté), organization, giving seminars for children living in institutions all over the country in which he familiarizes them with their rights and motivates them to continue their educations. He has been an intern at the US Embassy in Prague and also works as a coordinator for the Open Society (Otevřená společnost) organization.
As a personal trainer, Laci focuses on exercise, fitness and street workout. He lives in Prague.
When we came to interview him for Romani vod'i magazine, he greeted our photographer, Karolina, with the following information (which she agreed was correct): "Your hips are bothering you, most probably from dancing or some other kind of acrobatics. You have overburdened trapezius muscles, probably from weakening of the abdomen, and your pelvis is not open enough. When I look at your back, I see slight problems with your cervical spine and the small of your back. In addition, you're anemic and always cold, as we can see from your raised shoulders and cold toes."
Q: One probably doesn't encounter a fitness trainer who is able to literally read one's entire body at first glance in an ordinary gym, right?
A: That's true. One does not. I use elements of yoga, physiotherapy, and myofascial release, which is to say, exercise with pressure. The client exercises using his or her own weight and also with dumbbells. I choose from my portfolio of six or seven disciplines, and according to the client and his or her body, I create a training plan on the spot. It's better that way, because everybody has their own emotional, mental, physiological and spiritual level, and I put them all together and read the client's body in such a way as to provide the ideal training for him or her. My working idea for this is that I am creating something like a new sculpture. I spend a great deal of time on which muscle needs work and its influence on the other muscle groups. Now, for example, I am frequently preparing actors for film roles, but I also help them get rid of different blockages, and it really just takes me one look.
Q: How long did it take for you to acquire all of this knowledge about how the human body functions and how it's possible to aid clients so they can see their first results in the shortest possible amount of time?
A: All of this has been part of a process that I intuitively developed. I discovered this potential in myself and expanded it to include my knowledge from exercising. In order to be able to do all of this with joy, I need to keep further educating myself, acquiring information, because only in that way can I work with people on more than one front. I do my best to work with people unobtrusively, because they could have some medical problems they don't want to tell me about during that first hour, because they might be a sensitive subject. However, by working with the clients, I can adapt each exercise to them. Frequently it happens that a client has a problem with the trapezius muscles, which are associated with stress. If you experience stress, your trapezius muscles are stiff, they are scrunched up, your back and shoulders hurt, so that can be sensed and the person can be relieved of that pain and stress. This job is also my hobby, as a child I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to this once I left the children's home - movement, fitness, gymnastics. I knew that first I had to begin with myself, to attempt all of the exercises and see if I could even master them at all, to acquire awareness of anatomy, to complete a training course, and to develop myself further. I've already completed a course on how to exercise by just using your own body weight from an American organization that specializes this and is known worldwide - it's called street workout, and I learned several difficult elements there. I've also completed courses in physiotherapy, for example, about the functional stabilization of the shoulder blades and hips, concrete courses and seminars that opened ways for me to basically comprehend the body and the mind. I've actually dedicated myself to sport actively for three or four years, we could say.
Q: Today you are a trainer with an interesting clientele - in addition to students and people who do regular jobs, you also train models, actors, acrobats and pole dancers. How difficult was it to network with such a diverse clientele?
A: That didn't take much work. If you have an open mind, then people find you on their own. It's important to do things with some kind of persistence - not for the purpose of training actors and models one day, for example. I am training Tereza Maxová, whom I know from the time I was living in the children's home, it was she who paid for my three-week study program in England, her foundation did. She is an enormous inspiration to me because she does everything with heart, and that is also why her projects are so successful - and I also do my best to work honestly and with love. Instagram is a big aid to me, it supplements my work, but the main thing for me is still the "off-line" regime, when I'm face-to-face with a person and actually do my best to assist him or her in reality.
Q: You mentioned the children's home where you spent a large part of your life. How much, in your view, do such homes support children who end up in institutional care to do sports and different activities?
A: When I was in the children's home, our individuality was not supported. For example, when I showed interest in doing gymnastics, breakdance, or other such activities 10 years ago, they rejected that interest and told me that children in this country play football and that I could also choose singing. However, the times are improving, fortunately, and children are being approached in a better way, so that if a child is not afraid to speak up and say football is not the right thing for him, the educators are more open to his decision.
Q: The children's homes also didn't much support children to study at college, has progress been made on that too?
A: Even today, education is one of the most burning topics. It actually was the case before that the homes did not support children in what they actually wanted to study. I, too, encountered that problem, but because I was already spreading the awareness that even a child in institutional care could study whatever he or she wants, because that is the child's right, and those opportunities exist here, I managed to do it myself and I graduated in marketing communications. The situation has improved since I left the home, but even so, for many children it is complex and inconvenient. When we meet with children from institutions, we hear they are studying in schools that they never wanted to attend because the educators at the institution made a different decision on their behalf. That's bad, and I know it for sure because I'm the co-founder of an organization to support the rights of children from institutions, "One Second After" (Vteřina poté), and I'm in contact with these children. In addition, I visit children's homes with the documentary film "Adult from One Day to the Next" (Dospělým ze dne na den) that the organization Mimo domov (Away from Home) made in collaboration with director Igor Chaun.
Q: Did your experiences lead to you co-found Vteřina poté?
A: At some point in 2012 we perceived a big need to begin communicating to the broader public that children's homes aren't all bad, and there are young adults here who have aged out of these homes and want to achieve something. The group of people behind Vteřina poté have themselves undergone institutional care. We are convinced that the voices of children in this system should be openly heard. One issue is the departure of young adults from the isolation of the children's home. We are also dealing with the difficult life situations such children face and the education of teenagers in particular. Our endeavor is to augment what these young people can do, to be their agents in relation to the institutions that decide about life in the children's homes, so if a problem arises, we do our best to direct the child to organizations that can cover their tuition, for example, and we connect them with nonprofit organizations and institutions such as the Education Ministry, the Health Ministry and the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry.
Q: What are these children saying?
A: They want access to all the opportunities and rights that children from functional families have, and they don't want to be perceived as children who have been damaged in some way. A child who has aged out of a children's home wants to perceived as a human being who has the right to study and be part of the consumer society of the real world. The reality is that most people believe we've been in custody as juvenile offenders, as people who steal. They believe only Romani children end up in the children's homes and that everybody in them comes from the ghetto. People perceive our existence as futile, they perceive us as uneducated. Our perception is that these biases in society must be broken down, and that is why Vteřina poté exists. All those of us who have achieved something in life despite having undergone institutional care want to dismantle these prejudices. We're living proof that it's possible for children from state care to graduate from college, to dedicate ourselves to what we want to do, to basically function absolutely normally, and to live a calm, independent life.
Q: Age 18. That is usually the moment when you all are "thrown" into the waters of adult life. What does it feel like to walk out of the gates of the children's home with your newly-acquired adulthood and to live independently? Is it possible to prepare for that moment at all?
A: At that moment you experience mixed feelings, because a person raised in a children's home wants freedom, and at that moment freedom is the only need he or she is aching to fulfill. Growing up in the institutional childcare system is terribly complex, demanding, some people can't entirely cope with it. It's as if you were to constantly live your life at school from one hour to the next. You don't have your own life, just a firmly lined-up program, you are constantly prepared for what you will do next, what you have to do next, and how to proceed. Basically, you discover that you have as little room as possible to spend time on your own, to go use the computer, or to go out with a friend... It's also improved a bit, it's just that the change for the better could go a bit faster. That's reality.
Q: So you are all hankering for freedom despite having no idea what will happen with you and where you will go?
A: Yes. It's such a strong need that many people want to drop out of the system because of it. However, it's not because the educators are bad, or the ladies in the cafeteria don't know how to cook well, but because it is constantly managed time. The children want to know what it's like to have unplanned time, to be able to relax for a moment, to just be themselves. My departure from the children's home happened so I could study at college, but that was not until I was 24, when I basically didn't know what to do, or how to take care of myself, how to progress. I left because I couldn't cope with the situation at the institution anymore, I was angry and frustrated. At the time I expressed interest in attending a different college, but the people running the children's home told me I didn't have the right to do that. I began to take an interest in the laws, and we had already established Vteřina poté, and I began to investigate whether that was actually the case. However, the consequence of doing that was they told me I was prepared to move out already, and that pissed me off. They told me they had the feeling I was ready, but none of them could have known that, I myself didn't even know it. So that was the other reason I went to college, because I had nowhere else to go and I didn't feel prepared to leave the children's home. I had to search really hard for the information that nobody at the children's home had the right to tell me what I could and could not study.
Q: What proportion of the children in these homes are Romani, is it possible to estimate?
A: It depends where they are, if it's a region with a higher concentration of Romani people or not. There are homes with no Roma and homes with some Roma, but the proportion of Roma is never most of the children there. It's just not true that the children's homes are predominantly serving Romani children.
Q: Did you have to deal with the stigma of "I grew up in a children's home", or have you never had to grapple with prejudices based on your having grown up without being raised by your parents?
A: Just the other day I was at a friend's house having food and the other guys who saw me didn't have the nicest expressions on their faces, so sometimes I still encounter that.
Q: Did you ever miss your family, your mother, your siblings?
A: My Mom lives in the Czech Republic, but we are not in contact. I have a sister in Belgium, sometimes we're in contact on social media, sometimes we write each other, we know about each other. My sis was also the one who looked for me after I gave a television interview where I spoke about the education of young adults in college and the Tereza Maxová Foundation. She wrote to me through Facebook after seeing that reportage. So now I know there are five of us siblings, and I am the next-to-youngest. When I was younger I also asked myself over and over who my Mom and Dad were. I was very often frustrated and stressed about it. The days when I needed close contact with my family have basically already passed, and I don't feel a need to be in close contact with them now because I've found my own internal balance. If I have to meet my Mom, then I will, but I don't want to plan it. Right now I'm in a phase where I have myself and I don't need anybody else. During childhood and when I was growing up it was, naturally, the opposite, the director of the children's home at that time told me that my Mom had not been able to take care of me. The letters I wrote to her every Thursday were returned undelivered, so that was much more complicated for me.
Q: So all five of you ended up in institutional care?
A: Allegedly just my brother and I. My sisters lived with our grandmother. Today I see that it's basically fine that she put me in the home, I take it as a fact, something that happened and could have happened for many reasons. Maybe she couldn't cope with caring for us, or she didn't feel like it. As a young boy I was angry and I had a kind of feeling of guilt inside, that it was my fault because I had probably been too naughty, but with time I realized that it's just a fact, and that I must accept it and mainly not feel sorry for myself.
Q: How did you, as a child, perceive the fact that parents drive their children to school, or accompany them on the bus when they travel to summer camp or to after-school hobbies?
A: The first feeling is that you do not know what is going on at all. Those of us from the children's home used to stare at that as if it were a documentary on the Animal Planet channel. It's something like looking through a display window where a sample of the correct family is being exhibited. You don't want to admit it to yourself at first, but then you realize you are constantly depressed and frustrated because you don't have anybody to share it with and you don't know what to do.
Q: Have you already decided you would never put your own children into institutional care?
A: More than once. I had a tendency to go the opposite extreme - "I will bitterly love my family and be a proud parent" - but even that's not correct. Rather, it's necessary to accept reality, to clear away the past, to live your life with joy, according to your conscience. That doesn't just go for children from institutions, but for all of society.
Q: Is it still the case that the educators in the institutions don't have enough time to create closer emotional relationships with the children there?
A: I have to say that the governesses today are in closer contact with the children, but if I were to be harsh, I'd say it's not just about embracing the children - although the governesses themselves would love to be in a closer relationship with the children - but because they have more of a managerial role that they simply are never on top of. Children must be guided toward a good life, raised, taught. However, it is true that they frequently lack social contact - somebody coming to the child to tell him or her that everything is all right, because things just happen sometimes. Puberty, sexuality and identity, lack of information, isolation, all of these areas are resonating in the child and creating frustration that can go as far as heavy depression. The children don't have the tiniest drop of emotion in them because they have been robbed of it. I call it being disabled, emotionally.
Q: You are striving to see children in institutions get a chance at a good life. What would you like to achieve in your career as a trainer?
A: It's just a question of time, I have to find an appropriate space for opening my own gym. I have a team of people around me with whom I have been collaborating for some time, we're in close contact. We want to begin to develop our ideas together for combining functional, healthy movement training without the ego involved - we don't want to develop egoism in people, but a healthy, natural mind connected to the body.
First published in Romano vod'i [Romani Soul] magazine.
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