PREFACE: Here's who awaited and greeted me, with a big smile, in Sylvania, Ohio: my great-grandson, Philip! So precious! And his mom, my first-born grandchild Julia, and her mother, my daughter Elissa, and Julia's brother, Tony; and my grandkids Alli, Josh, Kyle, and their mom, my daughter Michelle, carrying a new grandson, Chase. A new family member is on the way! We live within a mile radius of each other, except for Tony finishing up school and finding his way in southern Ohio. I am home. I am "returned!" I am officially a RPCV, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Can you believe it’s been two years? Philip was 2 years old when I left; now he is reading!
This is my final PCV blog. My Ukrainian adventure has come to an end, but not my Ukrainian experience, my stories, my memories. They will always be with me. They are a part of who I am. Now a new American adventure begins, and a new blog, "Life After Peace Corps.” I look forward to sharing more adventures on the journey we all share.
So here are some final thoughts on what the Peace Corps experience means to me. It’s been a life inspired, a life of purpose. Thanks, dear friends, for following my adventures and cheering me on. It’s been a team effort, that’s for sure!
A Life Inspired, A Life of Purpose: The Peace Corps Experience
When I began work at the public library in Starobelsk, a Russian-speaking village of about 18,000 in far-eastern Lugansk Oblast, Ukraine, I had a minor run-in with a librarian who thought all Americans were ignorant and arrogant. He went on for quite a while, to the embarrassment of the director, but I smiled and said I understood and it was okay. He ranted while I nodded amiably. It helped that I understood only every other word or so!
Near the end of my service, this librarian came up to me to say how much he has liked seeing me work with the Library. The English Club and the English-book collection have brought more people and new energy to the library, he said. He admitted, a bit sheepishly, that he had a bad view of Americans for a long time, especially while growing up, but now he sees we can be friends. I was the first American he had ever met. I responded with a big smile. “I am so glad we got to know each other!”
This is the essence of the Peace Corps experience. When we began our Peace Corps journey, many of us Community Development (CD) PCVs thought that using our skills and experiences in support of Ukrainian NGOs was the top priority, the number 1 goal. We were in Ukraine to be useful, to do good work, to transfer our skills. We embraced this goal with enthusiasm.
Now I think that the two other Peace Corps goals are equally important: getting to know a country and its people, and their getting to know us and America. On this level the Peace Corps experience is about modeling and mentoring good will, optimism, a “can-do” spirit, a positive but flexible attitude. It is about modeling how change can take place and mentoring some ways of achieving goals, one step at a time, from the bottom up.
What does this mean? For me it meant working with an NGO to address human rights abuses through a “Know Your Rights!”civic education project. It meant having fun with kids at a summer Camp, walking around with a globe, maps, and a dictionary, ever-ready to connect and instruct. It involved discussing history, poetry, folk traditions and holidays at English Club meetings. It meant engaging members in hands-on projects like making peace cranes, origami pumpkins, Halloween masks, holiday trees and cultural maps. It meant helping an artist write a cultural preservation grant to preserve the decorative paintings of the ancient Lugansk region. It involved attending seminars of the spoken word, celebrating the publication of a book, honoring local poets and local talents from the past and the present. It encompassed leading literature discussion seminars with English classes at the University, exploring American short stories by Jack London, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, and Thomas Wolff.
Through all these activities, it was the connections that mattered most. The Peace Corps experience is about building bridges across cultures, and of course it's true: once a human connection is made, it's hard to sever. It feels good to connect on the level of human kindness, on a level that transcends differences. It’s wonderful to be a part of the daily life of a village: enjoying meals, many meals, and toasting to good health and good fortune; celebrating birthdays and holidays, and there are many in Ukraine; visiting a friend’s farm; attending programs at local schools and cultural centers; biking along village paths to go pick apples in fall; swimming in the river in summer, or relaxing on its tree-lined banks; joining friends on a vacation in Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov; traveling around the country; meeting friends like the incomparable Stefa and Bogdan in Lviv; and having tea, many cups of tea, in homes and cafes, getting acquainted, practicing a new language, developing trust and bonds of friendship.
All these activities, big and small, personal, work-related and social, inspire and energize the spirit, feed the soul. They strenghthen the foundation of grassoots change. They create brand new networks among people and organizations in the same village who had not connected before. They build lasting friendships. This was the essence of my Peace Corps experience for two years in the wonderful town of Starobelsk, Ukraine. I will always remember. Я буду всегда помнить.