Since Monika Sywak’s son, Pawel, died three years ago, just a few days shy of his 21st birthday, she has been searching for a way to honor him and give meaning to his life, cut so short, so unexpectedly.
Born in Poland in 1991, Pawel moved with his parents to the United States in 1995, and the family eventually settled in Wilton. While he never lost his sense of his Polish roots, he quickly acclimated to his new country. A junior majoring in engineering at UCONN at the time of his death, he was outgoing, compassionate, and full of dreams. He loved the University of Connecticut and was a big fan of the school’s basketball team, the Connecticut Huskies. He was a member of Alpha Delta Phi, which supported Special Olympics for its philanthropy. He was planning to enter the military after graduation, and use his engineering degree to work on maintaining and repairing military plane engines.
“In his short life, Pawel was dedicated to working with children, particularly those who were disadvantaged or mentally and physically challenged,” Monika explains.
While an honor roll student at Wilton High School, he volunteered with Friends and Buddies, a program at the Wilton YMCA that pairs high school students with children who are physically or mentally challenged.
“At first, he had no idea what to expect, and was worried that he wouldn’t be able to connect with the kids. But as he spent time with them, and got to know them well, he realized how much the experience was teaching him. He used to say to me, ‘Mom, I thought my life was hard, but that was just ignorance. All the things I am responsible for such as household chores, yard work and schoolwork, are nothing compared to the everyday hardships these kids face. I am blessed to be healthy and it is my duty as a human being to help others in need.’ He derived great joy from helping improve the lives of others, but he was mature and perceptive enough to realize that the children he was helping, in his own words, ‘improve my quality of life more than I could ever improve theirs.’”
In the summer of 2014, two years after Pawel’s death, Monika traveled to India with a group of women from Wilton, led by her friend, Shalini Madaras. Shalini had also lost a son, Army Pfc. Nick Madaras, who was just 19 years old when he was killed in Iraq by an IED, while on foot patrol in Baqubah on Sept. 3, 2006.
While in India, the women distributed soccer balls to impoverished children in rural areas of India, as part of Kick for Nick, the non-profit organization started in Wilton to honor Nick’s life and his passion for soccer and for helping children. Since its start, Kick for Nick has distributed more than 43,500 soccer balls to children in 22 countries around the world.
During a sightseeing excursion, the women took an unplanned detour through the small village of Abhaneri in Rajasthan. They passed what appeared to be a children’s school, in a building that was little more than a series of connected brick lean-tos with dirt floors, a tin roof, and no heat, electricity or running water. They stopped and spoke to the principal, Mr. Mahavir, who had opened the school several years before with 35 children attending. Over time, as parents in nearby villages heard about the school, they sent their children, and today the school serves more than 350 boys and girls aged 4 – 14 years old.
Without Mahavir’s effort, the local children would never have had the chance to attend school. The tuition, for those who can pay it, is $2.50 per month. Many parents cannot even afford that amount, so Mahavir does what he can to cover their fee. The children sit on the dirt floor for classes; walls painted with black rectangles serve as chalkboards. Basic school supplies are limited. Most of the children wear ragged clothes and have no shoes; those who do, wear ones with holes in the soles.
As Monika handed out soccer balls with the other women, the children’s faces lit up and they laughed as they kicked the balls around. After the women drove away, Monika could not stop thinking about the students there.
“I felt such a strong a emotional connection to them and to the school. Since Pawel’s death, I had been searching for something I could do to honor his life, and I realized that helping this school, these children, and others like them would allow me to do that,” she recalls.
As a first step, she and Denise Walsh, who had also been on the trip to India, sent Mahavir a $1,200 check. “This was enough money to fund the construction of two rudimentary bathrooms, simple brick cubicles with a large tank in the ground to collect waste,” explains Monika. “In India, the dollar goes a long way.”
As someone who thrives on challenges and getting things done – she is currently juggling a career in finance, pursuing her Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) at Sacred Heart University, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and raising her 13-year old son, Alex, with her husband Piotr – Monika was not content to stop there. This past year, together with Shalini Madaras and Denise Walsh, she successfully established a non-profit foundation, Pawel’s Children, to continue raising funds to support the Abhaneri School and other schools like it in India. She also built a website, which features information about the school, a photo gallery with pictures of the school and students, updates on the progress of the school improvement projects and future plans, and how to make a donation.
Pawel’s Children has since raised an additional $20,000; $2,100 paid for the construction of two additional bathrooms and to start a high school program, and $17,900 is being used to build proper classrooms, with real floors, windows, doors, desks and chairs.
“The children are so hungry to learn. They love coming to the school. Right now, Mr. Mahavir’s primary concern is to construct proper classrooms so that the students have a safe and hospitable learning environment,” notes Monika. “He also mentioned the possibility of providing uniforms for all of the students, as so many of the children are wearing threadbare clothes.” Additionally, he hopes to eventually build a playground and additional classrooms on the land behind the school.
“Just $600 pays for one bathroom. Just $2.50, less than the price of a cup of coffee, pays for one month’s tuition for one child. A donation of $25.00, ten cups of coffee, pays for a child to attend school for the full 10-month school year,” explains Monika.
A successful example of grassroots philanthropy, Pawel’s Children has no overhead, so 100 percent of any donations to the foundation go directly to the Abhaneri School for students’ tuition, facility improvements and school materials.
“My hope is that Pawel’s Children will be able to continue to support the Abhaneri School to provide the children there with opportunities they would never have otherwise. The money we raise has an immediate impact, and we are truly making a difference, one child at a time.”
Anyone interested in making a donation to Pawel’s Children can do so through the website, www.pawelschildren.org.