In an interview with Heinrich Wilhelm Driver, Michael Speckenbach (49), a lawyer from Lübeck (Germany), explains why he founded Bowspirit Kids, why he used everything he had for this purpose, and why this project will not only change the lives of potential little guests in the short run.
For all those who have never heard of Bowspirit Kids before: In three sentences - what does this name stand for?
Bowspirit Kids is a non-profit organisation. Our aim is to create a floating holiday and recreation camp for sick and traumatised children and teenagers on board an older passenger ferry. For this we have now started the crowdfundraising phase, because we don't have the "big unknown" who finances and makes this vision come true, but we rely on many small contributions from many very ordinary people like you and me, who are inspired by our vision and help out.
What exactly do we have to envisage under a floating holiday and recreation camp?
Perhaps let me answer your question with a play on words that Erich Kästner may forgive me for: We want to create a "floating playroom". A ship on which, in addition to the cabins and the areas necessary for physical well-being, such as the kitchen or restaurant, there is everything a child's heart desires. A place where our young guests can finally be again what they were temporarily denied by illness and/or trauma: kids.
You hung up your lawyer's robe and also used the proceeds from the sale of your house. Let us please talk more detailed about what you have initiated so that the readers can understand why you are going this way.
You're talking about sick and traumatised children. This means that you have doctors and nurses on board and want to carry out therapies there.
Yes and no. We are not a hospital ship. If you want to come to us on board, you must have completed the hospital therapy or a therapy phase. At that moment the patient-child is no longer in hospital or, in the case of trauma patients, no longer in intensive therapy, but it is not yet healthy. And that is exactly the problem. Follow-up treatment or rehabilitation measures are available for children and youths in Germany only under very limited conditions, because these are usually measures of vocational rehabilitation of the pension insurance institutions, but the children do not exercise a profession. On the other hand, if there are, they are linked to a clinical picture that can be treated during the rehabilitation period. But when it comes to integrating something that has happened into one's own life and learning how to deal with it, our social systems fail at this point. And if we look abroad in Europe, then there are no corresponding measures for adults and certainly no measures for the sick children or their siblings.
That is the gap you want to close.
That is the gap in health care that we as a society must close ... that Bowspirit Kids offers a solution for.
We want to show these children that they can achieve (almost) anything in the rest of their lives despite or because of what they have experienced.
To be honest, I struggle with the term therapy. Our potential guests have had various therapies and treatments before they come on board. I don't want parents, doctors or possibly children to say or think for themselves that there is this therapy ship - that's where I have to go now.
We will have very well-trained therapeutic staff on board. And if a child signals in any way that he or she has something on his or her heart, then everyone from the sailor to the female captain and especially the kindergarten teachers will be able to hear this wish between the lines.
Couldn't this also be achieved with a trip to the seaside? Why does it have to be a cruise?
That's how I thought at the beginning. A camp at the Baltic Sea coast. The more I thought about who should come and what should happen during the stay, the clearer it was that this is not appropriate.
In addition to many detailed ideas for the implementation of the trips, which are still a bit of music of the future and would therefore lead a little too far at this point, our project is supported by two core ideas in this respect.
Some of our potential guests simply went through hell. We therefore think that just the best should be good enough in any case for these children and youths. And this is certainly a sea voyage even today - especially if it takes place with a "floating playroom" and one is allowed to get to know and visit areas of the ship that a guest would otherwise never have the chance to see. One never forgets this experience. I put a positive experience on the side of the negative experience of illness - it doesn't erase it, but it puts it into perspective.
Secondly, life itself is also a journey. We would like to offer our little potential guests a very special journey to start into a hopefully healthy future. If this journey would "only" go to a coast, there would be a border - the sea. However, our young guests have experienced more than enough barriers and borderline experiences. Just as we symbolize it with our name, we want to express that despite what they have experienced, (almost) everything is still possible if the children and teenagers learn to trust themselves again with our help and learn to integrate the foul that fate has played for them into their future lives. We want to leave port A and leave what they have experienced behind us - unfortunately we cannot undo it. And we arrive at port B again. And even if they return home afterwards, our guests will be able to view their return to everyday life from a different perspective and return "upright" to their future lives.
Such a ship costs enormous sums in acquisition and maintenance, doesn't it? With the money you could do a lot more directly to the children in a different way.
In your question, the words "enormous sums" already contain a judgement. Please let us look at the project without judgements.
Yes, the purchase of even an older passenger ferry costs millions of Euros. For this I get a finished hotel with gastronomy, kitchen, rooms and lounges. If I built this in a comparable size ashore, the costs would be just as high. But the project would then have a major disadvantage - at least from our point of view - because it would be immobile. With a passenger ferry I am not bound to a specific location and can - in addition to the therapeutic effects on travellers described earlier - act from different starting points. I can come to the guests and do not have to fly them through half of Europe.
To make it clear: Bowspirit Kids is a European - North American project. We do not know any national borders for sick children.
And also the maintenance of such a ship costs money - without question. But the costs per day and guest are within the limits of the daily rates for rehabilitation or follow-up treatment in Germany.
So it is correct to say that we need a lot of money for our project. However, it is wrong to say that it is "too expensive", not feasible or something similar. That's exactly not what it is. Our cost approach is completely comparable to other forms of health care.
But perhaps some people might say that we see pictures of starving children almost every day in the news, for example in Yemen or at the Horn of Africa. There the money is needed much more necessarily.
It tears my heart when I see such pictures. And unfortunately you can only spend every Euro you own once.
But I personally associate Bowspirit Kids with a long-term hope. It's not really part of the concept because we can't "control" it. But I have made it sound clear in the description of our mascot Bowie.
We've known hunger in poor regions of the world for as long as I can remember - and that's been a few decades after all. And have we got the problem under control? No. Would we have the means - financially or in the form of food? Without any question yes.
The problem is still that we do not want it. Everyone will scream and protest at this point. But as societies of the rich countries, we have to put up with the accusation that we are still watching our fellow humans starve to death - you as well as me.
With disaster relief or local assistance for self-help, we will always be the famous drop in the ocean. What we need is a radical rethink in our societies - here and there - otherwise we will one day smile softly at today's migratory flows. The more knowledge spreads in the digital world, even in the furthest corners, the less it keeps people there if we deprive them of naked life.
Every Bowspirit Kid on its way to us on board will have experienced that it needed and got help from others. We will discuss this with the children on board. And the annual meetings of all Bowspirit Kids will focus on this idea of "only together we are strong".
Consider it a medium-term project. But fifteen or twenty years after their stay with us on board, Anna and Peter will have completed their training and will be looking for their first employer. And I bet my last shirt that the two of them are not interested in the highest salary or the coolest company car, but in the social responsibility programme of A, B or C.
Yes, we currently have a lot of misery in the world. But therefore we must not lose sight of the problems children face here. And in whose breast two hearts beat, he or she simply divides the amount he or she can spare - one half into disaster relief and the other half into disaster prevention by many, many generations of Bowspirit Kids at the nerve centres of our societies.
Fine. Let's talk about the ship again, please. So my daughter would never have left her son alone on such a ship. Especially not if he had just survived a serious illness ...
... and would have deprived him of the experience of his life!
But please let me answer your remark seriously. My answer is divided in two, because we must now distinguish between ratio and emotion.
We both know your daughter very well. A very loving woman, but also a very fearful person. Maybe she's scared of what she can't control. And she cannot control the sea. Nobody can do that. Here you have to trust in the abilities of ship and crew. For parents who have similar fears as your daughter that means that they have to trust us. And so that this "us" does not stand so intangible in the room, I make it more specific: They have to trust me! A ship that sails for an organisation in which I am responsible will only be operated according to the highest safety standards and my crew has a clear order not to take any risks. We do not have to keep to a timetable or anything like that, and we can, for example, wait for a storm pass by in port in complete relaxation.
As I said, we are moving on an emotional level here and I can say what I want here in case of doubt, I may not be able to reach your daughter.
If parents of potential guest children should feel similar fears, I ask only three rational (!) things to think through. First of all, every ship licensed to carry passengers must be designed in such a way that the passengers are not harmed. And passengers do not mean adult passengers, but all passengers. This means that a ship for passenger transport must, like a building on land, comply with appropriate structural measures so that small children, for example, cannot slip between stairs or similar. Secondly, the children are never unattended. And thirdly, when was the last time they heard of a child or youth who went overboard from a passenger ship? I am not aware of a single case. And every year thousands of children and young people go on a cruise and are by no means permanently "on a lifeline" with their parents.
It's about a large sum of money that has to be raised before you can really take off.
No. It's not primarily about money right now. This is a typical German way of looking at things, shaped by what our fellow men abroad call "German Angst".
The view on the sums of Euro, Dollar, Pound or Rouble, which we need, completely blocks the view on the essential.
The question that every individual has to ask himself is a completely different one. The question is not whether the sum for the start and then also in the future year after year can be collected. The right question is rather what the idea we have painted on the wall as a large picture does to you. Would you want there to be such a place for sick and traumatised children? Or do you think they shouldn't be helped?
If everyone thinks "Oh my God, oh my God, what a huge sum of money", this project will never become reality.
But if everyone who considers the idea wonderful gives a Euro or three and talks about it, then we will reach our goal faster than anyone thinks.
We are 82 million Germans. Let's assume that half of them can't support us because they are really poor, still young, too old or just can't stand children. That leaves 41 million Germans, of whom I would actually only like one Euro per capita. If everyone gives one Euro and fifty cents, the purchase, conversion into an environmentally friendly flagship and operation of the first few years are secured.
We shouldn't think milkmaids are stupid. The calculation becomes even easier when we think of the 512 million inhabitants of the European Union.
Individuals are all too happy to underestimate the power of individuals.
You mean the anxious look at the size of the project is like the rabbit's look at the snake?
Yes, exactly. Of course we can all wait until the knight in golden armour turns the corner on his black horse, puts down a box full of gold and rides away.
But we can also simply take each other by the hand. Everyone can make a small contribution that does not hurt her or him, and hand in hand do something big.
By the way, I would also appreciate that much more, because what do you think that means for the children, if they know that tens of thousands, even millions of people have stood up to help them, although they don't know each other at all?
And also from the perspective of the supporters it is great to know that everyone with a small contribution becomes part of a community that moves a great thing.
Okay, that makes sense. How can one help you? You need money ...
I don't know how you can help us (smiles) ...
Everyone has to find out for himself how he or she can help us. As a result we need money - that's true. We no longer live in a direct barter economy. The exchange is made possible today by the intermediate step "money".
But I don't know what you can achieve.
Maybe you sing in a choir. Then you might organise a concert and give the proceeds to the Bowspirit Kids.
Or you could organise a flea market and give the stand fees to us, as Kathrin and Monique did.
Or you have collected something all your life, but nobody in your family is interested in the topic. Then you could sell your collection to get it into good hands and donate the proceeds to the Bowspirit Kids, just like I'm doing with my big collection of ferry literature.
Or you're the world's best cheque issuer, then just issue a cheque.
Or you have a barrel organ - then stand in the pedestrian zone of your city on a Saturday and play for the Bowspirit Kids.
Maybe you also have something to celebrate, maybe a special birthday or just that you and your loved ones are well. Then share your joy with the Bowspirit Kids.
When I look at your websites or just look at the clock to see how long we have been talking, the whole project leaves an impression of being both extremely complex and extremely well thought-out.
Thank you for the flowers. That was the goal. I am aware that our websites contain far too much text for some people. Some people might have wished for a website with the text "We want to help sick children" and a donation button.
But that's not my way of thinking and working.
I advertise an idea with my colleagues - and I have to sketch it as detailed as possible.
What I still haven't understood is your personal transformation. From lawyer to Robin Hood for children?
No - rather from lawyer to kids' advocate. I hung my lawyer's robe on the wall next door in the office - as a reminder.
As a reminder?
Yes, I don't want to work again for people who don't value my work and me. Children are mercilessly honest. They tell you right in your face that you are stupid or cool. Or they suddenly sit down next to you in the middle of their game, while you pluck weeds in the garden, start plucking with you and start telling stories ... and the parents' eyes fall out because the four-year-old son has never done anything in the garden before ...
Why you of all people?
My mother asked me that as well. The answer is very simple: someone had to do it. I just came down the road - and I had the possibilities.
But it is still a drastic change.
Actually not at all. We lawyers work with language. Our subject is related to linguistics. And when you take a closer look, we are storytellers. In court I tell the story from my client's point of view, but with my words and using my (perhaps already well-known) authority as a lawyer. My fellow lawyer does the same, probably with a slightly different focus. And in the end the ladies and gentlemen on the judge's bench tell us what they have understood and kept of our stories and how it will continue.
I do nothing else now, only that my "clients" are a little younger, have no economic interests, but simply need a chance.
This chance is Bowspirit Kids. And I stand - as I did in court at the time - with my name for it.
Thank you very much for the interview.
You are very welcome.
Please kindly also note the attached full version of this interview. Both versions are approved for publication free of charge. We kindly ask you to send us a specimen copy.
The Bowspirit Kids Group was founded in spring 2018 in Lübeck, Germany. Our activities focus on the creation of a maritime holiday and recreation camp that will give sick and traumatised children and their siblings - often called the "shadow children" - the opportunity to have fun and take a recreation from the illness. To this aim, we want to take advantage of the mobility of a passenger ferry to be able to operate outside of the base location in order to present the Bowspirit Kids Group and its work worldwide and to initiate further projects based on the guiding theme of a "recreation from illness".
The group has two companies - the non-profit company Bowspirit Kids gemeinnützige GmbH (www.bowspirit-kids.org) and the commercially managed Bowspirit Management GmbH (www.bowspirit-management.com), which are intertwined under company law in such a way that the profits generated cannot be distributed to shareholders, but are directed towards the overarching charitable objective.
The Bowspirit Kids Group intends not to base its activities solely on classical donations, but also to raise financial resources through social events and business sponsorships. In the fourth quarter of 2018, the campaign "The world's largest floating pinboard" was launched as kick-off event.