August 7, 2003 - Mount Olive Chronicle: Peace Corps volunteer Eli Fenichel gets Slovakian education

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Peace Corps volunteer Eli Fenichel gets Slovakian education

Read and comment on this story from the Mount Olive Chronicle on Peace Corps volunteer Eli Fenichel who works in Slovakia as a parks and wildlife specialist at the Slovak Paradise National Park, providing general management and organizational assistance, along with grant writing and work on several different projects at:

Peace Corps worker gets Slovakian education*

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Peace Corps worker gets Slovakian education


Eli Fenichel of Flanders is shown at the cemetery he helped restore as a member of the Peace Corps in Spisska Nova Ves, Slovakia.

MOUNT OLIVE TWP. - Eli Fenichel is no fat, power-hungry American.

But one of his early tasks as a Peace Corps volunteer in Slovakia was to debunk the common, negative stereotypes of Americans.

Fenichel, 25, of Knollwood Road, Flanders, described the two years he spent as a Peace Corps volunteer as "the best education I ever had."

He returned in March from two years and eight months in Slovakia, a small country in the geographic center of Europe. Slovakia is in the process of becoming a modern parliamentary democracy, after 40 years as a socialist puppet state of the former USSR.

"To watch the transition was just amazing," Fenichel said in an interview. "So many things we take for granted are so new to these people, and they treasure them. The latest election had an 80 percent voter turnout, and people were very upset that it was so low."

"A much greater percentage of that population is actively involved in the country's growth. It was realy uplifting to see how much impact people could really have," he said.

The former Czechoslovakia split peacefully in 1993 into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, or Slovakia, a country of about 22,000 square miles and 5.2 million people.

Fenichel was there as part of the Peace Corps' "cross-cultural exchange," basically helping people in another country to understand something about America by meeting, working and living with an American. He was also there to provide technical assistance to the country as it builds a modern capitalist society.

Wildlife Studies

A 1996 graduate of Mount Olive High School, Fenichel went on to earn a bachelor's degree in wildlife ecology, with a minor in natural resources economics, from the University of Maine at Orono in December 1999.

His technical mission in Slovakia was as a parks and wildlife specialist. He worked in that capacity at the Slovak Paradise National Park, providing general management and organizational assistance, along with grant writing and work on several different projects.

In June 2000, Fenichel traveled to Washington D.C., to join 39 other Peace Corps volunteers headed for Slovakia. After one day's introduction to basic procedures, the group departed for Vienna, Austria, the closest major airport. From there, they drove to Stura Tura in Slovakia for three months of intensive language and cross cultural training.

Fenichel lived with a young Slovak couple, who continued in the evenings the nine hours of classroom language instruction he received every day.

"By the end of three months, I could speak enough Slovak to get by," he said.

It was time to head to "the site," the city of Spisska Nova Ves, with a population of about 40,000, where he began his assignment at the national park.

Bike Plan

One of Fenichel's biggest projects at the park involved developing a bicycle tourism management plan, bringing together bicycle dealers, bed and breakfast inns, the country's Tourism Information Office, the park and several other NGOs, or non-governmental organizations.

"It was very cool to see how people from these different areas started listening to each other. You could actually see the light click on. They realized that they had different objectives but the same overriding goal. They maybe needed to go along different paths, but the paths could be parallel, not divergent. It was an important lesson for me as well," Fenichel said.

He took on several animal projects, including a bat monitoring program, and writing a grant for a western spotted eagle recovery program. His computer skills were put to good use, as the country made rapid technological progress.

Peace Corps volunteers are "always working." Fenichel's after-hours projects included beginning the restoration of an old Jewish cemetery, from which many of the grave markers had been removed for paving stones. A local high school history teacher has since taken over the cemetery project.

Fenichel met a 90-year-old Jewish woman who is the only surviving Jew in Spisska Nova Ves. During World War II, the Nazis sent her and Slovakia's other Jewish citizens to concentration camps, where most of them died. The woman had survived four years in the camps, three of them in Auschwitz, and returned to her home after liberation.

Although "I'd never played baseball in my life," Fenichel coached an adult baseball team.

"We had a lot of fun," he said.

While still in training, Fenichel put the local librarian in touch with Rita Hilbert, director of the Mount Olive Public Library. Through their efforts, Mount Olive children and Slovak children have "swapped stories."

His most frequent after-hours work, however, was being himself, an American who came to a foreign country, learned the language, lived and worked with local people, and adapted.

"I spent a lot of time talking through myths they had about Americans, let them see that Americans are not overweight loudmouths trying to take over," he said.

"That part of the work was very rewarding, but exhausting. You could get burnt-out on it," Fenichel said.

He was in Slovakia on September 11, 2001.

"Everywhere I walked in this small town people came up to me to say how sorry they were and to hug me. They really felt they were helping America through a terrible time by talking to me," he said.

His parents, Doug and Karen, along with his younger brother, Ethan, a student at Mary Washington College, and an aunt and uncle visited Slovakia during his stay.

Fenichel finished his Peace Corps service in June of 2002, but stayed on another eight months, working for the World Wildlife Fund and for the European Union, and with national parks in Poland and Hungary. With more income, he was able to do a lot more traveling, and visited 14 countries before returning home in March.

His immediate plans are to begin a master's degree at Michigan State University, in agricultural and natural resources economics. He would like to one day bring to New Jersey the skills he has and will continue to acquire.

"This state's growth rate has really outgrown its policies," he said. "People talk a lot about conservation and are trying to do their best but I don't see a lot of clear objectives, and a lot of the work is done ad hoc. Many interesting incentive programs and economic tools have been developed recently."

"What's happening now is like trying to build a house with only three or four tools in your box, when 30 or 40 effective tools have been developed in the last few years," he said.

Fenichel said he would recommend the Peace Corps experience to anyone.

"I learned so much. It's an amazing experience," he said.

©Recorder Newspapers 2003

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