This is my rough translation of the interview I gave to the Polish- American daily "Nowy Dziennik" that was published a week ago, by Elwira Blazewicz.
One day the editorial staff of “Nowy Dziennik” received a letter from a reader asking if we were interested in his unusual life story. I've contacted Mr. Rafał Strzałkowski, a young attorney living in Gainesville, Florida. This is his story.
I was born in Warsaw in 1979 as a premature child with Cerebral Palsy. My parents, my mother in particular did everything to make my life as normal as possible. My earliest childhood memories involve endless hours of physical rehabilitation. Nothing was easy or was just happened by itself. I've got used to the fact, that you need to try and try and do things repeatedly to achieve your set goals. I didn't know back then that all of this would give me advantage in the form of determination, certainty based on experience, that just because you don't succeed at first, it's no reason to give up your efforts. On the contrary, you need to dedicate more energy, attention and time to accomplishing your dream.
-What did your school years look like?
It didn't start without a hitch. My mother had to fight so I wouldn't end up in a special school with mentally challenged children. Unfortunately, even the school administration seemed to believe that people with Cerebral Palsy are not able able to develop intellectually as well as physically able individuals. With help from my parents and older brother I was able to finish school. The logistics that this required may be unimaginable to somebody who never experienced a disability. Anything from stairs, doors being too narrow to buses without ramps can be a huge obstacle. I had to constantly rely on my friends and family for assistance. I was schooled in Poland and partially in Hungary where I had greater opportunities to get rehabilitation. I used to speak Hungarian fluently as a child.
-Your brother studied computing, what made you choose your major?
I decided to pursue law at University of Warsaw because I wanted have a positive influence on the lives of others. I've always had an ear for languages and the ability to form and express ideas with ease.
You've must've been very proud after graduating.
Naturally. I've graduated summa cum laude. The feeling didn't last, because nobody was willing to hire me. I got depressed because everyone around me worked, was busy with their life and ware doing their own thing and for the first time I felt I had no perspectives for a future. I didn't want to always ask for for help and started living a life of a loner.
- How did you finally get back on your feet?Someone from my university helped me. She encouraged me to participate in a program of international exchange and cooperation that UW and University of Florida in Gainesville set up between themselves. It seemed like a crazy idea, I have never lived by myself before; even my brother who usually has a very positive attitude predicted I'd be back in three months. I decided to take on this challenge however because I wanted to live, work, be respected, for what I have accomplished and for who I am. Normal goals of a grown man. I wanted normality. I wanted for people to take me seriously.
- - How long have you lived in Gainesville?
- It's been seven years. After my program was done I decided to enroll in regular American law degree course of study and now I'm an attorney and I work at th e Jordan Klausner Foundation. It aims to help kids with neuromotor disabilities and their parents.
- I read that the Foundation was started by a father of a four year old boy who died from Cerebral Palsy complications.
- Yes, I respect and admire him. Doctor James Klausner aside from his work and research and as an educator in the field of physics actively runs the organization that has a school in Gainesville. It's our dream to expand our activities to other areas of the country.
- How do you deal with everyday hurdles?
- Originally I lived with a colleague from Poland. My previous apartment wasn't fit for my needs. My furniture not always accessible from the perspective of a wheelchair was literally attacking me. Recently I got a bigger, single apartment that I thrive in.
- What do you do besides work?.
- Gainesville is a lovely town full of cafes, I spend time with friends and move about town often and freely.
- What would you say to people in Poland with your condition?Working on yourself, both physically and intellectually is the most important thing. Nothing ever happens by itself, you need hard work and persistence. I would love for our cause to reach Poland and I'm willing to share my experiences and knowledge with anybody who's interested. You can friend me on Facebook and read my “Lawyer on wheels” blog.
- Thank you on behalf of our readers for an interesting conversation and see you in Gainesville!
- I wholeheartedly invite you to visit the foundation and the school on behalf of Dr. Klausner and myself.