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The U.S. Peace Corps Teaches and Trains Throughout the East

Prague, July 5 (RFE/RL) -- Environmental educator Gary Randolph teaches children about plants and animals in his job as an American Peace Corps volunteer in the Czech Republic.

But Randolph looked like a fish out of water himself as he hobbled on crutches recently around the fancy hallways of the Prague home of the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. It seems Randolph dislocated his kneecap while playing games with some of his students in the town of Horni Marsov, near the Polish border.

But that didn't stop Randolph and a few dozen other volunteers from attending a reception hosted by ambassador Jennone Walker in honor of the Peace Corps. The humanitarian program is ending operations in the Czech Republic next year.

Randolph does not fit the stereotypical profile of Peace Corps volunteers -- college-age students unsure of their career goals spending a few years excavating wells and irrigation systems for impoverished nations in the Third World.

Randolph is 36 years old. He came to the Czech Republic in 1993 from the eastern U.S. state of Ohio, where he also worked as a teacher. "The Peace Corps is looking for more qualified people," he said. "We're not just digging ditches." Indeed, the average age of volunteers in the Czech Republic is 43. More than half have advanced university degrees. Volunteers in the Czech Republic either teach English or advise in environmental and business matters.

The Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by U.S. President John Kennedy. The program is funded by the American government and annually sends thousands of men and women to live and work around the world. The Peace Corps aims to provide technical assistance, to help Americans understand other cultures, and to help the citizens of other nations learn about Americans.

Some 1,800 Peace Corps volunteers are currently working in Russia, the former Soviet Union, and eastern and central Europe. Czech President Vaclav Havel invited the Peace Corps into Czechoslovakia in 1990. But federal budget cuts in Washington -- combined with advances being made in some host countries -- are resulting in the closure of 12 Peace Corps programs, including the one in the Czech Republic.

At last month's reception, ambassador Walker sipped champagne and spoke of the permanent contributions that 223 Peace Corps volunters have made to the Czech Republic. Some 30,000 students have learned English with help from a Peace Corps volunteer. One hundred environmental projects have been completed. One thousand business owners and managers have improved their management skills. Some 150,000 books have been brought into the Czech Republic to establish more than 35 libraries around the country.

One of these volunteers is 24-year-old Michelle Tucker of the southern U.S. state of Florida. She has a master's degree in urban and regional planning. She's working in the environment department at city hall in the town of Koprivnice.

She says her most important contribution has been to offer a different perspective. She said too many Czechs still think there is only one way to get something done -- that is, wait for the government to do it. She says she is "empowering" residents, showing them how to do it themselves. For example, she is getting kids to design their own playground and asking the parents to build it. "Then it is theirs, not the government's," she said.

Bill Piatt is the country director for the Peace Corps in the Czech Republic. He said it had always been his dream to live and work on the "other side" of the Iron Curtain. Piatt said he soon discovered that the people of then Czechoslovakia "shared the same goals, fears and aspirations" as he did.

Piatt says he hopes some of those aspirations will be kept alive in the Czech Republic through his creation of the Bohemia Corps, the successor to the Peace Corps in the Czech Republic. It plans to bring foreign language teachers into sponsoring businesses and towns in the Czech Republic.

The Bohemia Corps is scheduled to begin next summer with 150 volunteers and around 100,000 dollars, about one-tenth of last year's Peace Corps budget. According to Lida Horakova, who is leading the effort, the Bohemia Corps hopes to be funded by grants and private donations from its beneficiaries. She hopes it will expand into other areas, such as business training.

Ambassador Walker praised the Bohemia Corps as "wonderful evidence that a tradition so important in the United States -- private citizens taking responsibility for their own communities -- is reviving" in the Czech Republic.
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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.