VOLUNTEERS SHARE NATION'S ECONOMIC WOES

Jim Davison can laugh about it, because there's no other choice: "My claim to fame," chuckles the Peace Corps volunteer in Czechoslovakia, "is that I drew the short straw and I got the most polluted area in the country." Teaching English to Czechs in Usti nad Labem is "a lot of fun," he grins, "if you don't have to breathe."

The Peace Corps experience here is worlds away from the bugs and heat most other Peace Corps volunteers contend with. But it has its challenges: little sunshine, a lack of privacy, and a complicated language.

The $150-per-month living stipend - slightly above the average wage here - means doing without just about everything except the bare necessities. Housing for the volunteers is provided by the host universities and colleges where they teach.

"For me it's enough, because I don't have anything. I buy food," says Gerri Carlson. She occasionally goes to a movie, but can't afford English language books or film processing. She can pay for a bus to Prague, "but to go on vacation to the Tatras, I would have to save, just like any Czech person saves," she says.

Many Czechs, she adds, have more than one job, as well as gardens or livestock. She is still mystified by the fact that the residents of her town, Hradec Kralove, can buy chickens at half the price she pays, and she wants to know their secret.

Living like Czechs and Slovaks, the Peace Corps volunteers sometimes also sound like them. "Things are getting so much more expensive!" exclaims Terese Piccoli, a volunteer in Prague.

On the other hand, the volunteers are thriving on their experience. "I love the challenge," says Ms. Carlson.

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