Jelka Pekez: When You Save Yourself by Saving Others

Jelka is just one of us – an ordinary single mom trying to make the best of life in her home country of Serbia, land of struggles, transitions, and extraordinary people. After raising her daughter on her own she ended up as a manager in the cosmetics industry – but, after many years of doing the same thing, she lost interest and passion in her job, and did not know where to go next. Until she heard about the Grooming Academy of Sasa Riess. As a huge animal lover, she was thrilled with the idea of learning how to groom dogs and spend time with them, while at the same time earning money. But there was a further dimension – the academy had a special program for people from the margins of society, even ex-convicts, teaching them how to groom and giving them a chance to create a better future with decent work. Jelka’s life changed completely when she started to work alongside these people – the fact that her time and knowledge could change the trajectory of someone’s life for the better made her find a renewed purpose. She says she and her co-workers all learn together every single day and points out the most valuable lesson she has gained from this experience: when someone believes in you, you start believing in yourself.

Dear Jelka Pekez, tell us more about who helped you in starting out in the grooming business and what happened in your life that made you leave the job of cosmetics salon manager to become a grooming expert?

It all happened by accident (although I do not believe in coincidence). During a night when I was out with friends, one of them mentioned her friend, Sasa Riess, and told us an interesting story about him, what he does and his life philosophy, in general.

Soon after, I saw a live show on TV about Leviatan, an organization for animal protection, filmed at Sasa’s Grooming Academy. I have always enjoyed helping endangered cats and dogs and the organizations that deal with them.

In the last five years, especially, I have taken in several cats and dogs and fed and nursed them until they got better. Nine years ago I adopted a dog that is now my pet.

Taking care of all these animals, I thought it would be very useful to learn how to groom all of them myself, instead of paying others to do that, each time I saved a stray animal from the streets.

As for the job of a cosmetics salon manager, I enjoyed doing it, but after 8 years I felt it was time for a change, although at the time I was not sure what that change would look like.

Jelka Pekez: When You Save Yourself by Saving Others
Jelka Pekez: When You Save Yourself by Saving Others

Do you have your own salon, and how do people find you?

I still do not have my own salon. I work in the Grooming Academy salon, located in the centre of Belgrade. Twice a week, I also work in a pet studio where there is a grooming service as an option, for cats and dogs.

All the people come to me via the personal recommendation of Sasa Riess, via social networks and also via my old satisfied clients. 


How did you manage to connect with people from the margins of society, some of them even convicted criminals, and help them to secure a productive future?

Sasa Riess was the first person to create a project that consisted of taking in a couple of boys rejected by society and the civil institutions due to their criminal past and way of life, and giving them training via his unique Grooming Academy program.

He created the whole program, and the main aim is to help these young men make their futures better so that they can find real jobs and start earning money in a decent way. I went through the same program, and that helped me to change all of the things I wasn’t happy with in my life, to find myself again and to gain enough confidence to change the world around me by changing myself in a positive way.

Now keep in mind, Sasa is also a businessman, at some point he needed to travel to the USA, but he did not wish to take a break in working with these boys, so I was asked to replace him.

This is how I started taking care of the grooming sessions and working with them. At first, I was a bit scared and sceptical, but I said yes as I had already left my previous job, and this seemed like a challenge.

How is a single parent stuggling to take care of a child treated in Serbia? 

Excellent question. From the perspective of today, I look back at the unfortunate ‘90s in Serbia, and while I was raising my little girl, the whole country was just trying to survive, so I did not have any bad experiences or judgments.

People tend to judge others so they can assure themselves they do better than the rest of the world. I became aware of this fact long ago, so I didn’t pay much attention.

Back then, and even today, a single parent has far more issues in finding a job. Not many talk about this, though. I used to hide the fact I that had a kid, during job interviews, sometimes I was even forced to lie about not having a child, in order to get the job.

An employer wants someone who can be a secure and permanent worker, and when they hear you are a single mom they already see you spending most of the time on sick leave (which is wrong).

This was the only problem I was facing as a single mother – the fact it was so hard to get a job. 


How do socially marginalized people come to you today?

All of these men first go through the grooming program with me. Many of them have already taken some serious steps in improving their way of life and the way they treat themselves and the people around them.

Some have started certain forms of education, although they are more than 30 or 40 years old. When they need me, they call me and I help them in the grooming job or talk to them about private matters.

I can feel their respect for me, and it means so much.

Describe what it was like when you first met some of them, was there fear or prejudice?  

That whole first day with them felt like I had no idea where I was and what to do, I even wondered if I really needed something like this in my life.

I grew up with a similar sort of people, raised in the streets, who used to fight and use drugs and alcohol. Many of them are no longer living. These facts scared me a bit, as well as the fact that now I need to help these people to achieve and learn something.

Although they were very noisy and ready to criticize their fellows by swearing a lot, they did respect me and everything I was doing with them.

However, the dogs we were working with were very upset because of all the noise, and I felt uncomfortable because of that, in the beginning. I followed great advice from Sasa Riess to try to praise their every attempt to do a good job, and it worked – that was the only way to keep them calm.

I kept doing that, and everything started to change for the better in both my perception and theirs. They started showing gratitude and discovering their hidden potential.

They also opened themselves to new skills and knowledge, and since then every day with these people became better and eventually became fun for all of us. 

Share with us an example of a good outcome and the story of one of these people and the way your help has changed his life.

Two out of five men are doing the grooming business on their own today – their customers come to the Grooming Academy and pay them for their service. They are still educating themselves in the field of grooming, and they continue learning.

One of them has managed to sort out very problematic family issues – for a number of years he did not have any contact with his family at all.

Today, the man has a job, is earning a salary in a decent way, and soon plans to have a family of his own.

I believe the whole program he went through has helped him to realise that he can achieve anything in life, only if he tries hard enough and dedicates himself to it completely.

He was made to read books, he learned how to write with his left hand, he studied about history, about types of dogs, he gained skills on how to trim animals, etc.

When someone believes in you, then you start believing in yourself, too. He realised this fact and started having faith in what he can achieve.


What is the greatest reward for what you have been doing and what is that makes you feel fulfilled at the end of the day?

The greatest reward while working with people from margins of society was the fact that I learned the same lesson as they did – and that is that when someone believes in you, you start believing in yourself, too.

I had the courage to open my own grooming business. I did this a week ago, and I have already brought in two clients, I believe the business will get better and better from this point on.

I continue to cooperate with Sasa Riess, and now I am the one who takes care of the practical part of training with all the participants in the course.

I truly enjoy doing this job. I feel that, after meeting these boys and later on a group of women who went through the same process, my life makes more sense now.

The fact that the time and knowledge I give to someone else makes that person improve his or her life and become a better human being, makes me fulfilled and satisfied.

And the greatest reward of this whole story is the fact that I meet so many wonderful people with different life stories and how learning from each other makes me realise something magnificent – how similar we all are, in a way.

Photo credits: Lemi G


Read more similar stories to Jelka Pekez about brave women here.

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