The Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity known as WOŚP (Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy) is not like your typical Christmas film on Netflix. It is however, one of the largest non-profit, non- governmental charity events in Poland. Annually, since it has started in 1993, the organization has been raising huge sums of money to supply medical equipment mainly for children’s healthcare at public hospitals in Poland.
Each year WOŚP chooses a different cause to raise money for, based on social needs. In 2022, WOŚP’s 30th Final played on Sunday, January 30 “to ensure the highest standards of diagnosis and treatment of eyesight in children”. One of its founders – Jurek Owsiak, who is the Chairman of the Board of the Foundation, is also a music journalist, writer, broadcaster and volunteer himself. He is the mastermind behind Poland’s largest ‘Pol’and’Rock’ live music festival. The Great Orchestra’s free open-air festival known as Grand Final or Pol’and’Rock Festival is organized by volunteers once a year as a thank-you event to everyone who has been involved in charitable work. People come together to raise funds and to have lots of fun. Usually, the Grand Final day is packed with interesting auctions and concerts, hundreds of bands performing for free at all festival sites throughout Poland. You’ll see lots of volunteers, many of them young people and children, wondering through the streets and collecting donations, who are at the same time bravely bracing the extreme cold on the streets of Poland. Those who put money into a WOŚP’s donation tin are rewarded with the organization’s distinctive red heart stickers. You can see people have them attached to their jackets, backpacks and handbags. That’s the way of showing that they are proud to have made a contribution.
“I remember back in the day when it all has just started, we as volunteers walked on the streets collecting funds inside trash bags instead of donation boxes. Since then, we have grown significantly”, said Michal who’s been working with WOSP for a long time, since he was 8 and now is an honored member of Peace Patrol.
Other than that, Collection Centers can also be found in other countries wherever there are Polish communities.
“We play globally – there are volunteers raising money in 29 countries across the globe. We are in touch with them via the internet” says Olga Zawada, one of the communication managers at WOŚP.
Once the night advances, around 8PM thousands of residents gather in the city centers to watch a huge, breathtaking fireworks show called “Light to the Heavens”, which lasts about 4 minutes. This year, while many residents of the capital praised the organizers for the massive and beautiful show, some others criticized WOŚP and the mayor of Warsaw condemning the fireworks negatively affect the well beings of animals and birds. Internet users accused the mayor of the city Rafał Trzaskowski, and reminded him of his own tweet in which he urged the residents of Warsaw not to launch fireworks on New Year’s day. Despite the fact that the President and founder of the organization Jerzy Owsiak stressed that the show lasted only 3 minutes and 59 seconds, the wave of disapproval was so strong that he had to announce that in the following years there would be no more fireworks as part of the charity event. Furthermore, this time due to the coronavirus, the organization rather avoided open air concerts and instead had one under a huge tent for a much smaller number of people with tickets required to enter. Nonetheless, there were many other fun activities in other zones of the square for those who were late to get a ticket to the concert. For safety reasons each person had to undergo a coronavirus test before entering the tents. Those who didn’t come could watch the event live on the internet. Last but not least, the foundation has once again smashed its record for the largest amount of donations this time with 132 million PLN. Each consecutive year WOŚP has been blowing its past targets starting from 1.5 million USD in its first year to over 115 million zloty at last year’s event, and 92 million zloty the year before. As usual, all the money will be donated to support child healthcare. Although, in his interview with Onet, Jurek Owsiak highly doubted that there would be any records this time.
“Poles really got less money” he said.“Even though people are eager to help and happy to share, they are just pissed off that their hard-earned money is being taken from them by the government”, Owsiak mentioned.
After all, it is no secret that there’s a division between Jurek Owsiak and the national conservative PiS government who are not fond of Owsiak’s liberal values. In 2017, the authorities decided that WOŚP concerts would no longer be broadcasted on public TV influenced by the government. The channel lost thousands of viewers because of that. What’s more, Owsiak and his family have been wrongfully accused of financially profiting from the charity, especially by pro-government media through a cartoon animation, for instance.
“I used to work inside the government and they are all liars. We are biding our time until the opportunity comes to overthrow the current government which is going to happen soon in the upcoming election”, Greg, a man who was very generously donating a lot of funds to the donation boxes said, when we stopped for an interview with him.
While remembering some key moments in WOŚP’s 30-year history, one of the organization’s members, Olga says this: “Our first fundraiser was meant to be a one-time event, but the support we received from Poles made us register the Foundation. Another key moment was when we had to change the broadcaster of our telethon from public TV to a private channel – TVN. Another, very painful one happened when President of Gdańsk Paweł Adamowicz was assassinated during our event in 2019”.
However, the majority of people do trust in Owsiak’s honest work. Independent research shows that over 80% of Poles support the charity. According to the liberal daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, WOŚP is the most trusted organization in Poland. When asked about what makes them trust the foundation, Poles generally answer that the organization is quite transparent about how they invest money and what equipment they purchase. Each piece of medical equipment is clearly marked with the organization’s logo, so people in hospitals can see which pieces of equipment are donated by WOŚP.
“All of my brother’s kids have been treated with medical equipment bought by the organization in public hospitals”, one interviewee, Michal said.
“We have raised over 1.5 billion PLN and donated over 67 000 medical devices… which are used to save lives of children daily”, said one of the members of WÓSP very proudly.