There won't be many waves of Volunteers before the Poles will have caught up...This will be one of the world's great and limited engagements. Poland will not need us for long. - E. Timothy Carroll, Peace Corps Country Director 1991-1994
On June 8, 2001, Peace Corps Poland and 63 currently serving Volunteers (PCVs) will celebrate their "graduation." They are the last Peace Corps "class" of American citizens of all ages, races and cultural backgrounds who have offered their skills and expertise to Poland in the decade since the end of Communism here. PCVs worked as small business advisors for seven years, and for ten years as environmental resource people and teachers of English as a foreign language. They feel it appropriate that Mr. Christopher Hill, the U.S. Ambassador to Poland, is himself what is termed a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, having served in Cameroon.
In the United States the usual image of a PCV has always been of a twenty-something college graduate in a T-shirt and shorts standing before a grass hut in an African village. Therefore it was a new twist when volunteers were posted to former Communist bloc countries, including Poland. Timothy Carroll, in a World of English article, noted that when the Peace Corps came to Poland it found that, "Rarely has a host country government of the Peace Corps been so cooperative, so truly a partner. Officials on the highest levels make things happen, support the Volunteers, intercede on behalf of the agency, entertain bold ideas." And he concluded, "But more important than the government support is the spirit which these Volunteers bring with them."
Success and celebration
In 1996-97 the Peace Corps left Hungary and the Czech Republic with little fanfare. Acting Country Director Kevin Baker looks back at the successful partnership between the Peace Corps and Polish schools, agencies and businesses and thinks that this graduation celebration in Poland is one that acknowledges the success of Poland's transformation - a rare opportunity for the Peace Corps to have been part of the "overwhelming development and progress of the country's infrastructure." The most impressive thing he has observed here is the "endurance of Polish people coming through such rapid change to their economy and political system."
And so, on June 8, when American and Polish officials join with PCVs and their counterparts, no one can blame the group for self-congratulation as they celebrate their success. It has been a remarkable decade of Polish-American cooperation and friendship, a model which proves that volunteers do make a difference.
As he was so instrumental in encouraging the Peace Corps presence in Poland, Edward J. Piszek, the Philadelphia philanthropist, has brought word of Peace Corps activities to students through The World of English. This magazine has covered many Peace Corps Poland beginnings. From 1991 to 2001 its writers have chronicled the arrival of new groups with such headlines and phrases as: "Be patient...Learn Polish...The Luckiest People in the World. "
The World of English reported that by September 1997, "439 volunteer English teachers, teaching at all levels, had completed their service in Poland... There (were) 95 volunteer teachers teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL)..., 38 volunteers working in the environmental sector, serving to enhance Polish environmental organizations, educating the public in this direction and assisting national parks, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), municipalities, and city and town halls throughout Poland." That year the small business advisory program left Poland, secure in the knowledge that many Poles could work with new free market policies to manage the growth of their own economy. In seven years small business advisor PCVs had interacted as 51 municipal advisors, 22 business trainers and 40 privatization volunteers.
Growing and giving
In their two years of service, many young volunteers "grow up" in the Peace Corps; acquire some worldly wisdom along with a new language, as well as an understanding of another culture.
PCVs have all had similar initial experiences. As Emily Gage remembered on her arrival in June 1991: "So there I stood, that first full day of life in Poland, on the cement yard, waiting. I was armed with my stereotypes, two suitcases filled with all the things we were warned we wouldn't be able to find in Eastern Europe, and one word of Polish." Volunteers throughout the program have been housed with Polish families willing to help the struggling Americans with language and an introduction to the customs. Gage continued, "I remember vividly the conversation that I had with my host mother on the way to the house. She spoke not a word of English, but through some wild gestures, lots of nodding and a couple of dzień dobrys thrown in, she and I managed to determine to each other that I was not a smoker."
And what is the reason for undertaking this enormous adventure? G.J. Ethan Allen, PCV 1995-97, put it this way: "Volunteering is a way of life. It's training people in ethical free market decision making," he reckons. "Teaching a kid the game of baseball, how to run a race, give a speech or use a computer... Building playgrounds, painting schools... Being a United States PCV is about offering a hand of understanding."
But it's not all teaching and research and interaction with education and government authorities. PCVs must identify other projects in their communities where they can share ideas and issues that may have more personal meaning. Several PCVs have chosen to work under the umbrella of an adjunct organization called Women In Development (WID). In 1996, a WID volunteer worked with the Polish Cancer Awareness Committee to help in the efforts to educate women about the dangers of breast cancer and the services available in Poland. For several years the PC-WID volunteers organized a country-wide conference held in Cracow that raised consciousness and provided networking opportunities for a variety of educational groups and NGOs which support women's issues - domestic abuse, breast cancer, alcoholism.
A yearly essay contest, begun in 1995, focused on women's issues and has included topics such as "The source of a woman's strength" and "The ideal role of women in Polish society in the 21st century." In recent years, WID teamed up with Promyk, a Cracow-based non-profit organization against domestic violence, to sponsor a photographic competition (see the prize-winners in WoE Nr.5/2000: "Putting Women in the Picture"). Project organizer PCV Lucy Wichlacz described the project as an opportunity to recognize Polish women and their diverse contributions to home, job and society. A calendar for the year 2001 resulted and the proceeds of the project went to Promyk.
An English Language Convention was organized by a PCV in 1996. The conference is a language competition/cultural event for liceum students. Incorporating language competitions in speech, poetry reading, monologue presentation and a grammar bee gave students an opportunity to show off and improve their English skills. They also had an opportunity to learn about diverse cultural topics. "Usually people don't remember all of their life," said one student, "(but) these moments were special, they will stick in my mind forever."
TEFL teachers who are PCVs have the summer vacation to do some personal travel, but the remainder of their time must be spent on a special project. Many have chosen to focus on camps for language, for growth and development, and for just plain fun. The most identifiable of these has probably been Camp GLOW.
Each summer for the last four years a group of women have been "glowing." Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is an English language and leadership training program for young women. It has since been held for four consecutive years since1997. It was developed by Peace Corps-WID and has been organized in cooperation with host-country individuals and organizations. Each year 30 to 40 assertive young women share ideas throughout the week in areas such as self-esteem, career planning, self-expression, goal setting and diversity. Sessions are presented in English by PCVs, Polish teachers and Polish junior counselors, their aim to encourage innovative ways of thinking while fostering a team-work ethic. Activities ranged from yoga to kick-boxing and hiking to volleyball tournaments.
And as Peace Corps leaves Poland, PCVs have been working to ensure the future of Camp GLOW. That's why GLOW 2000 was directed by a half-Polish and half-American staff, so that once Peace Corps is gone, Camp GLOW stays.
A COLLECTION OF REFLECTIONS
Recently, PCVs gathered in Leszno for their final Close of Service conference. It was a time of reflection and, for Polish nationals of the Peace Corps staff, to look back on what the volunteers have accomplished in a decade.
KRZYSZTOF FILCEK is the Program Manager for Environmental Volunteers:
How has the environmental program changed through the years?
Initially, the environmental focus was narrow: the physical improvement of the parks, enhancing research, and improving the tourist information structure. (After three or four years) the program was expanded to landscape parks, self-government agencies, and local authorities. (Then) the program aimed to change to a community focus through environmental activities.
Do you see Americans as adding value, and how do you feel about working with them over the years?
Americans do add value, yes. Not necessarily due to their level of knowledge, but because their perspective and approach often differs from Poles. I like working with Americans. There are advantages: a multi-level generation of ideas. Many people have reservations about working with foreigners, (but) once you get rid of the stereotypes, the superiority/inferiority feelings are gone.
EWA STAWECKA, one of many TEFL Program Managers, shares her impressions:
You've been with Peace Corps since 1993. How have the volunteers and the issues they deal with changed over the past 8 years?
Recently the Peace Corps volunteers coming into Poland, compared with those of a few years ago, have much more knowledge about Poland and are more aware of the changes that have occurred here. I remember one volunteer, for example, who came to Poland a while back with almost a two-year supply of hygiene products, because she honestly believed that she wouldn't find them here!
It's also much easier now to stay in touch with the PCVs than back in 1993, through e-mail or on their mobile phones.
What has been the best experience for you about working with the Peace Corps?
One of the best things about working with Peace Corps has been the challenge every year to train teachers and facilitate their placement where their skills are best used. It has also been interesting and fun to get to know so many different and unique people and keep in touch with American culture.
A PCV asked her fellow volunteers if they have any free time. The answer? An enthusiastic "YES!" So what did they do with it?
Jason Sheridan, Wojkowice
I spend a lot of time fencing. I first started in college. I took lessons with a Russian fencing master in New York and trained with members of the U.S. Olympic team. Thanks to fencing I visited Eastern Europe for the first time. My college team went to both Warsaw and Budapest and I was drawn to the region. When I decided to join the Peace Corps I was happy to find out that I had been placed in Poland. I sought out a fencing club and by luck found the best fencing coach in Poland. He wasn't going to give me lessons, but it turned out he had a computer which he didn't know how to use - so now I help him work on his computer and he, in exchange, gives me fencing lessons. I get to fence with some of the top-ranked fencers in the world.
Janelle McCormick, Sadowne
I've had the opportunity to spend some time with the Missionaries of Charity in Warsaw. I have provided English lessons for them. Additionally they have been gracious enough to allow me to work beside them in the work they do with "the poorest of the poor," the people who come to them in need. I have been able to witness the loving compassion that these women have for people and families in very desperate situations.
Bairnt Dittler, Bielawa
I play in two bands. We actually use the bands for the promotion of non-profit organizations and birthdays. For example, we have played for "Kids Without Homes" and did a "Toys for Tots" during Christmas. One band is called Niewiadomo. It is a hard core punk band and I sing in that one. The other band, The Starfish, is like The Cranberries (but is a bit harder) and appeals to more people. This summer we shall be doing some more non-profit stuff.
With research, portraits and interviews by Jenifer Beaty, (Environment) Nowy Sącz; Ginny Black, (Secondary TEFL) Włodawa, Mary Crisostomo, (Teacher Trainer) Zamość; Jeanne Cross, (Environment) Puławy; Anne Crowley, (TEFL) Warszawa; Joseph Gasper II, (Secondary TEFL) Siewierz; Suzanne Keith (Teacher Trainer), Sandomierz; Dana Krajewski, (Secondary TEFL) Oborniki Śląskie; Martha Strunsky, (Secondary TEFL) Piastów.
In the beginning (1989-90):
when Peace Corps arrived, Poland had 1,200 teachers of English education officials estimated a need for 20,000 teachers in 1990 Poland's education authorities created a network of three-year foreign language teacher training colleges which needed qualified staff American Polonia ($10,000) and Edward Piszek ($1.2 million) funded 120 PCVs, mostly to teacher training colleges.
In the last decade:
113 men and women have served as small business advisers 132 men and women have served in the environmental sector 720 have been TEFL teachers. Peace Corps has been a presence in approximately 850 communities. Overall, PCVs have applied for and received $855,112.46 in grants for Small Project Assistance: $144,684.00 for small business $321,237.08 for environment $389,191.38 for TEFL related projects. PC TEFL Volunteers in Poland have taught English to over 120,000 high school students and over 9,000 teacher training college students.
by Judith Hunger