“Adventure Starts When Our Plans Fail”: Lessons from Tamara Bodor, WYA’s 2017 Viktor Frankl Awardee

Some weeks ago WYA Europe director gave me a call saying he has a “task” for me. This usually means he spotted a person who I should interview. When I get this kind of suggestions from him, it’s mostly about someone inspiring who has some experiences and thoughts worthy of sharing. “Who is it?” I asked.

It was about a girl from Croatia who is soon receiving Viktor Frankl Award for outstanding WYA members. “She was involved in the success of her Chapter more than any founder, visionary or honorary member, in fact ” he tells me. Although his calls for an interview are not so rare, he’s usually not using such strong words when recommending someone. This got me interested.

Lesson no. 1: Adventure Starts When Our Plans Fail

So, I met Tamara. Although she pretended to be communicative, I realized that, in fact, she’s shy. “This should work, ” I thought to myself, shy people always hide a treasure behind the shyness.

Then she started: “For a long time now while introducing myself and meeting new people, I don’t point out where I’m coming from. Truthfully, I am amused by people’s reaction when they find out that I wasn’t born and raised in the capital. Besides that, the envious sighs at the mention of my hometown always make my day.”

She thinks this says a lot about her ability to adapt. “This is an important trait for a job like mine; being a secretary and the only employee in a growing, developing association.”

Recently, she had a tenth year anniversary living in Zagreb, half of which she spent working with the World Youth Alliance. Before that, she was studying Croatology, Communication, and Journalism.

“By the end of my college, I’ve discovered that I am mostly interested in observing ethical irregularities and criticizing unfair journalists. The brief and unpleasant experience I had working in media, draw me away from my field temporarily. Then I started my Ph.D. in Croatian culture, which I am now finishing”, she explains.

Her first encounter with WYA was during her final year of college. At the end of this year, she already had a plan how to use the spare time till graduating. She decided to get involved in a program for personal development. “I couldn’t wait for it to start. Accidentally or not, I had to give up on it at the last minute and that’s how all of my plans suddenly changed.”

While I was waiting for the story to unfold, I realized that all the adventures start apart from our plans. A good life is lived by those who let themselves be surprised by life’s challenges, I thought.

The story goes on. She got an invitation to a first Certified Training Program, previously known as Track A training. The invitation came from a friend who knew she had a neck for reflection and discussion, so he naturally assumed she would like it. “All the information I had was ‘universal value’, ‘human dignity’ and ‘in English’. For some reason, one I can’t recall anymore, it was enough for me to join the group that had started a few weeks prior to that. Apart from my friend, I was acquaintance with only two other people in a group of ten.”

Here was another thing I realized. Most inspiring stories start with going into the unknown. She planned to start a program for personal development, the plan failed and she started something she thought was a human rights course. “Despite my discomfort in front of unknown people, and my low level of English, I decided to try to finish this”, she exclaims. But she didn’t just finish a human rights course. She engaged in an adventure which will make her quit her job, work without an office, become a bridesmaid to the person she just met, find friends for life, and build something out of nothing. Every big story starts by our plans failing, I guess.

Lesson no. 2: Heroes are Born Out of Struggle

Tamara’s love for writing and her tendency to listen and lead long conversations poured out in her work in WYA. “Here I try to primarily be available for our members and volunteers, give them guidance, but also learn from them. I would have never thought that working with young people would fulfill me like this. The passion, dedication, and willingness to grow and learn are the things that inspire me over and over again. But that is just one of the many surprises that this job has offered me”, she says.

I wanted to know what motivated her to join WYA (besides the unhappy coincidences and failed plans, of course). She answers: “I never thought of myself as a social activist, but ever since I can remember, I have been sensitive to injustice and I was often the first and only to react about something that seemed intuitively unfair to me, but not to the others.”

When I tried to ask her why is that so, she quickly responded: “I simply never felt good about myself if someone close to me was feeling bad. I am pretty sure that modern psychology has a term for this complex, but whatever it may be, it is a thing that pushes me forward.”

She thinks that this complex was probably the reason why one of her favorite chapters from CTP is the one called “Solidarity”. She especially admired the story about Polish movement “Solidarność” and Lech Walesa, its leader.

“He had such solidarity with people he barely knew that it cost him ten years of his freedom (at least his physical freedom). That’s the story that encourages me and motivates me to give my best, which isn’t always easy, especially when things look like they’re about to fall apart”, she explains.

She tells me the story of Walesa. He was a common man, an electrician in a Gdansk Shipyard. It appeared to us that ones who become the leaders are often normal, “every day” persons. He was put under surveillance, persecuted, arrested and imprisoned several times. And his fight lasted for more than 20 years to finally see the outcome.

Tamara continued to explain her beginnings: “My thirst for living, breathing examples in which the justice is triumphant, was greater than any obstacle and I have won my CTP certificate. Today, when we already have six successful CTP cycles, I often try to calm people’s nerves before the certification by sharing my own struggles. I often say ‘I was the only one in my group that had a mentor translating her answers for certification’ while I try to encourage them and, at the same time, recall all of the fears that I have overcome in my 4 years of working with WYA.”

Tamara working in one of Zagreb cafe’s

Later I discovered from others, what she didn’t tell me. The adventure she started by leaving her job and started working for WYA Croatia was naturally an insecure one. Since the Chapter didn’t have an official office, she would often have to work from home or cafés. The money for her salary on the account was always secured for a limited period of time. Since they were just building up the organization, there was no structure or mentor to take care of her, but she was among those creating the structure.

While I was thinking about all the fears she had to overcome, and all the obstacles she had to jump over, an idea came to me. Struggles make people great. Not just that, big struggles make heroes. Tamara testifies to that: “Working with this organization, has built me far more than any program for personal development, that I desired so much. For that, I am deeply grateful.”

Heroes are born out of struggle and they are the only ones who can change the world for the better. There’s no changing of the world without heroes. Walesa struggled for 20 years before the fall of the communism. Many unknown heroes are struggling every day to make this world a better place for everyone.

And just before I finalized this interview, I got the news from her that WYA Croatia got an office from the City of Zagreb. I guess even Walesa was able to enjoy small victories like this which gave him the foretaste of the final victory which was to come.

Lesson no. 3: The Battle for Humanity Starts Within Ourselves

Finally, we came to the part where I wanted to find out why she received an award for outstanding WYA members. As I learned before, she was involved in the success of her Chapter “more than any founder, visionary or honorary member”. After two years of voluntary work, WYA Croatia fundraising activities bore fruit. The members decided that it’s time to professionalize their work and that one of them should become employed full-time in the organization. Everyone thought that Tamara would be the best for the job.

Looking back at everything she experienced, she says: “Working with this association is far more and far less than I expected. Our impact on society and positive changes are not so visible and I often find myself lost in the logistics and administration to the point where I forget why I’m even here. Although not without it’s certain charm, building an organization from the ground up and maintaining it isn’t an easy task for one employee and a handful of volunteers.” Nevertheless, she adds: “On the other hand, working with people who share my values and having fun along the way, is something I would wish for every young person who’s starting a career.”

She continues to explain: “The story of WYA Croatia is built by so many people, different people. In some different circumstances, in which they would not be connected with a yearning to live fully with these values, they probably wouldn’t even choose each other as friends.”

Apparently, friendship is something they immensely value. I ask her to explain me this. “There’s not much romance. Everyone with an experience of a true friendship knows that being a friend requires being prepared for personal growth and perseverance despite all the hardship and frustrations, which every relationship inevitably has”, she responds.

When introducing the organization to new members, they always point out that human dignity is something we must live first and then promote. “I would say, in fact, that we promote it when and solely by living it, which is an endeavor that requires conscious decision every day.”

And then she proceeds: “That is why I struggle to express the particulars of our association, which in a way makes me pleased because it cannot be reduced to a phrase. I am happy that in this world there are small, for an ordinary, employed, preoccupied man invisible places, where people believe in protecting a person and his rights, not just through a court or a parliament, or in the streets with slogans and banners, but through a small, personal fight where a winner sees his opponent as a human being with his innate, inalienable dignity.”

Seeing an opponent as a human being with inalienable dignity seemed to me as something so essential, and yet so hard to achieve. How this personal fight is won?, I ask her. “It requires life on the edge, constantly resisting the tendency to relax with like-minded people and neglect the duty that we owe to those who are not on the same side, to society as a whole”, she tells me.

This personal fight is a missionary one. It wants to bring its fruits to the world. “Because we share the experience of struggle, primarily the struggle for peace, it is the duty of us from WYA to enter into the world with that knowledge. The knowledge that our struggle is in vain if it negates the struggle in our personal arena; struggle to cope with the mystery of our own nature and being”, she says and concludes: “For me, that fight is a true activism and WYA Croatia is a melting pot of those who recognize the same. I am immensely lucky to be in the middle of it.”

Written by Timo van Meertens, freelance journalist and occasional contributor to WYA blog.