Peace Corps finally makes its presence felt around Russia - The Russia Journal

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Peace Corps finally makes its presence felt around Russia

Peace Corps finally makes its presence felt around Russia

Peace Corps finally makes its presence felt around Russia

By DENISE ALBRIGHTON / The Russia Journal
18 Oct 1999

John Rafter is an extremely busy man. A Peace Corps volunteer already in his third year, he is working on projects to aid the disabled, women and children, HIV sufferers and the poor - and this does not even include his day job.

A businessman, social worker and gerontologist by training, Rafter came to Russia as a business consultant with the Peace Corps. Never one to idle away his spare hours, he has been undertaking many outside projects -with the help of Peace Corps grants.

"I was familiar with the Peace Corps, and it has been something I have always wanted to do," Rafter said. "Then I had the chance to take a couple of years out of my schedule and do it."

The Peace Corps was created in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy and is a volunteer international service organization, which aims to promote world peace.

The organization was invited to come to Russia in 1992 and has worked mainly in English-language teaching, business education and nongovernmental organization development.

But relations between Russia and the Peace Corps have not always been warm. Of the former Eastern Europe bloc countries, Russia was one place where the Peace Corps was not welcomed with open arms, said Steven Taylor, director of the Peace Corps in Russia.

"We are always saying to the Russian government that we come without arrogance," he said. "We come to share our simple skills and help in any way we can. We are trying to build bridges between the two societies.

"For too long, our people have been suspicious of each other and Americans probably more so than Russians. The Russians are very proud, and they have a right to be proud because of their culture and intelligence. The Americans are also very proud."

Taylor is careful to stress that the Peace Corps in Russia is here for skills transfer and that volunteers often leave with just as much as they have given.

Many volunteers explained that they had not known what friendship was until they came to Russia, he said. And they would often write after they had returned home, to tell how they missed the Russian soul and culture.

The focus of the organization has changed since it first became established in the country. The first volunteers to be recruited came straight from Wall Street or were top specialists in terms of business, said Taylor, and the goal was to assist the country in its transition to a market economy.

It was easy to find high-caliber volunteers, and many of the first recruits are still highly revered by those they came to help. Now, said Taylor, the focus has shifted and English-language teaching is becoming increasingly important.

"Russia needs native English speakers at all levels, including university level, secondary school and primary school. In today's business world, English is becoming an increasingly important commodity. I have 180 requests for English teachers in western Russia alone and only 50 to 60 requests for business educators."

Taylor said many volunteers are retired professionals who want to contribute something. Russia is a good place to do this, as long as people can handle the climate. The age of volunteers in Russia is at least three years above the 28-year-old average of volunteers worldwide.

Volunteers are located in cities, including Rostov-on-Don, Yekaterinburg, St. Petersburg, Taganrog and around Vladivostok in the east. Fifty-seven volunteers currently are undergoing 10 weeks of intensive training in teaching methods, Russian language and culture, in a bid to prepare them for their two-year stint.

For the first time this year, four volunteers will be sent to Novosibirsk to teach English in high schools and universities. Andrey Melnikov, director of programs, said it seemed natural to connect sites in western Russia to those in Vladivostok by branching out into Novosibirsk.

The Peace Corps has received many requests for volunteers from sites in Novosibirsk, and they will have much to occupy them during their two years. The region is in need of new trends in education methodology and can only benefit from access to native English speakers, Melnikov added.

Volunteers have access to a small fund to help them undertake their own projects.

This could be anything from Internet projects or participating in English-language clubs, to giving someone a grant to buy a photocopier to start their own business.

Rafter and some street children bought 40 rolls of warm cloth and used three sewing machines, owned by the Salvation Army, to make around 500 blankets, which they then donated to other street children.

"We never expected their euphoria when we gave them the blankets. It was probably the first gift they had received in their life," he said.

Rafter is one of eight volunteers who have decided to stay an extra year with the organization in Russia. Volunteers normally commit two years to the service and have to request permission for a third.

"Considering the economic turnaround, I was very impressed," said Taylor. "The Russian crisis has made the work of volunteers all the more important, and it has showed that the U.S. is still interested in keeping the lines of communication open."

"I stayed because there is a need," said Rafter. "I felt I was accomplishing something. I am still working on projects that are ongoing."

Among them, Rafter is hoping to train around 15 people with disabilities on how to repair shoes. The group will then ask for donations of old shoes, which will be repaired and given to those in need.

He said: "The winter is coming up and many individuals are in need of shoes. But the idea is not just to repair shoes - it is to provide a supportive environment to disabled people. This program will give them the opportunity to feel like they are part of society, and they will be providing assistance to those in need."

But Rafter stressed that his were just some of the projects being undertaken and run by the volunteers and Russians throughout the country.

He added: "The Peace Corps gives the funding, and we oversee the projects, and the Russians do the management and the supervision. Each city has its own needs and everyone works on different projects. Everyone has a different experience."

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