March 12, 2004 - Sofia Echo: Saluting the Peace Corps in Bulgaria

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Saluting the Peace Corps in Bulgaria

Saluting the Peace Corps in Bulgaria

Reading Room - Saluting the Peace Corps

Velina Nacheva

As the Peace Corps celebrated the anniversary of founding on March 1, VELINA NACHEVA met its leaders and volunteers.

FORMER US president Bill Clinton spoke in the same line as Carl Hammerdorfer, country director of the US Peace Corps in Bulgaria, when reflecting on the remarkable tradition of the organisation.

"The Peace Corps is a remarkable tradition that emphasises that our country is about more than power and wealth. It is also about the power of our values and the power of a helping hand, the ethic of service, and the understanding that we have an obligation not only to our own people, to people around the world to help them make the most of their own lives," Clinton said.

The Peace Corps started as a challenge set forth by the then-senator John F Kennedy appealing to the University of Michigan's students to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.

"The Peace Corps expansion stems from the basic philanthropic instinct that Americans have," Hammerdorfer told The Echo. He said that there are different reasons for people volunteering for the Peace Corps. A lot of them travel and want to work internationally and others have personal reasons. The fundamental reason is to do something for other people and that is the reason why many other organisations working in humanity field work alongside Peace Corps.

"Once you are represented with certain opportunities you feel that it is your responsibility to provide more opportunities to others as well," said Peace Corps volunteer Sarah Pack, programme officer with Free and Democratic Bulgaria Foundation.

Three goals comprise the Peace Corps mission. "One is to provide skilled people to come and help at the community level in countries around the world," Hammerdorfer said. "The other two cultural goals are basically about an exchange, to bring American culture and its beliefs and work styles, and to bring the other culture home," he said.

According to Hammerdorfer, Bulgaria is very unique because, first of all, it is the most developed country that Peace Corps is in right now. They have worked in Poland, Hungary, the Baltic, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He said that those programmes had been phased out. "It is a challenging place for volunteers to work in Bulgaria because they are working with people that themselves have a fairly high skill level," Hammerdorfer said.

"The position Bulgaria has vis-a-vis its entry into the EU obviously makes it unique compared to most of the countries where we served," he said. In some areas, the work of the EU and of the Peace Corps overlapped.

"We have some of the volunteers working against human trafficking. This is an issue that the EU refers to in its accession documents. We have a lot of volunteers working in what I would call teaching ethnic tolerance promotion," he said. "Those are issues that are ultimately bonded to the EU," he said.

Since the Peace Corps' official establishment on March 1, 1961 there have been a total of 170 000 volunteers and trainees to date, serving in 137 countries.

However, Hammerdorfer would rather use the term "change agent" when referring to a volunteer.

"I think that each volunteer should be a change agent in their organisation or in the community. But I would combine with that 'partner' - they can't be by themselves an effective change agent," he said. If they find a partner, a local change agent, the two of them together create something. "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," he said.

"Which is why the counterpart system that the Peace Corps uses is so effective," Pack said.

When a volunteer finishes his or her service they don't become a former Peace Corps volunteer but a returned one.

"We will expect Sarah for the rest of her life to continue to be an ambassador generally for internationalism but specifically for Bulgaria," Hammerdorfer said.

"We have the highest marriage rate of any other Peace Corps programme. More Bulgarian Peace Corps volunteers marry Bulgarians, than any other country where volunteers marry local people. he said. "Bulgaria is a romantic place," Pack said.

Flexibility, open-mindedness, professionalism, diligence, patience and curiosity are values that all Peace Corps volunteers need to have and they do have.

"Optimism is a fundamental element of the American character. We are skeptical of institutions and our government but we tend to be generally optimistic," Hammerdorfer said. "This is another nice thing that a volunteer can bring into the community," he said.

"There is so much talent among the young people in Bulgaria to see it kindle by another person's optimism is really good," Pack said.

If you are not flexible enough to mix with any culture then you will not succeed, nor will you if you are not professional. The Peace Corps expects volunteers to work at the highest professional standards both on their on the job performance and how they spend their leisure and social time. "While they are here they are really ambassadors for the US," he said and added that he himself has been an "ambassador" for Mali, where he was a volunteer together with his wife.

According to Hammerdorfer those who are genuinely willing to explore are the ones who do best. They want to go to koukeri festivals, hike and camp, go to huts (hija) and want to enjoy what Bulgarians enjoy.

There is a lot that Hammerdorfer has enjoyed having been in Bulgaria for the past 15 months. He recalls experiencing his culture shock back in the 1990s during his first visit in the country. "A lot of the shock was very positive. I was shocked how beautiful, geographically, the country, forest and mountains was," he said. "I thought Bulgaria is a country that is getting its wheels off the ground and the sky is the limit," he said.

One of the things which positively surprised him was how alive the cultural traditions are in Bulgaria.

"The fact that you can go to hundreds of villages and hear traditional music, see traditional dance, see beautiful traditional handicrafts in a way that is not catchy at al," he said and added that it is important to Bulgarians for more than commercial reasons but is something which is culturally important.

There are certain challenges that volunteers face in Bulgaria but many of them depend on sector they work in. For teachers who are about 85 in Bulgaria the biggest challenge tend to be the discipline of the classroom. There are 41 economic development volunteers serving in Bulgaria.

"They usually run into resource problems," he said, explaining the various fields of service and problems that commonly occur.

"They cannot find sources of money to finance the projects that they and communities want to do. They complain more about pessimism, which is general. They complain about having ideas, and trying to sell them to the local partners who say 'that won't work'," he said.

There are 34 volunteers who serve as environmental advisers. No matter where in the world you are if you work in the environmental field you have a similar challenge, he said. "You are pretty low on everybody's priority list," Hammerdorfer said. "Everybody talks about how important the environment is, but no one is putting any money into it," he said.

Pack is one of the 10 youth development workers who do not face challenges of the kind listed above.

She said that one of the strengths of the Peace Corps programme is that there is a host family in the first three months.

"This is such an amazing opportunity for me," Pack said. She has developed very close relations with her host family. To be a volunteer is to be part of a support network. The Peace Corps advises volunteers to stay on site, to be immersed in their town and culture and to make Bulgarian friends.

"Many volunteers at Christmas time do not get together with other volunteers, which would be natural, rather a lot of them would go to whoever the host family is and spend New Year and Christmas," Hammerdorfer said.

"The Peace Corps discourages you from expressing a preference for a certain country," Pack said. "All volunteers say I will go where the need is greatest," he said.

According to Hammerdorfer. Bulgaria is a very gorgeous place with the sea, the mountains and tremendous cultural assets. "In a way that makes it harder because I think that there are countries where there are not that many temptations," Hammerdorfer said and added that there are places where you cannot do much other than your work.

No matter what work the 165 volunteers are involved with, they all share the universal goals set by the Peace Corps. They aim to foster democratic government, create a modern economy, contribute to modernisation of the education system, improve the management and conservation of natural resources, meet the demand for English language fluency, and work with entrepreneurs to build businesses and create wealth and jobs.

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Story Source: Sofia Echo

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Bulgaria



By Anonymous ( on Monday, April 07, 2008 - 3:02 pm: Edit Post

i am interested to know more about peace corp in Bulgaria.

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