A kind of 'Peace Corps' aid in reverse; Overseas help for the needy in the US
Soft-spoken Peter Mirgartz, 23, from Cologne, Germany, works with senior citizens in Cleveland. He is finishing an 18-month tour of service.
''We are the 'legs' for the seniors,'' Mr. Mirgartz says of his work with a citywide activist group pressing for older people's rights.
The ''reverse peace corps'' that sent Mirgartz is a 20-year-old German ecumenical organization, Action Reconciliation-Service for Peace. Its volunteers work with social service, community organizing, and peace education groups.
It began in 1958 when German church leaders who had actively opposed Hitler set up a program whereby young Germans would go to countries victimized by fascism.
The first volunteers helped rebuild bombed Coventry Cathedral in England and a synagogue in France. Later they undertook social service projects with handicapped and disadvantaged persons.
During the international peace activities of 1968, a group of American churches invited Action Reconciliation to the US.
Prevention of fascism's return is a goal. Johannes Otter, national coordinator in Washington, D.C., says that in Germany the group monitors neo-Nazi activities and watches for anti-Semetic and anti-Polish sentiments in textbooks.
For some, like Mirgartz, the US assignment can be used as alternative service to the German draft.
Volunteers are trained through workshops, seminars, and history lessons before crossing the Atlantic. Courses focus on militarism, conflict, minorities, and the third world, Mirgartz says.
There are now nearly 30 volunteers assigned to such projects as desegregation , inner-city housing, and a free medical clinic in several Midwestern and Eastern cities. Mirgartz says that volunteers are paid for orientation and air fare. Organizations they work for give them subsistence funds for rent and food.
Conditions in the US have surprised Mirgartz somewhat, especially in the contrast between the availability of health care for the elderly in America and in Germany.
''This is a very interesting time to come to America,'' he explains. ''There are so many seniors living on low, low income with such high medical and utility bills.'' In Germany, ''people have insurance if they get ill and old, and there is more care, from family and government.''
Another organization based in Germany, the International Christian Youth Exchange (ICYE), provides US and foreign students with traditional learning and goodwill exchange experience. However, it is expanding into the placement of adult volunteers with service groups.
The program has brought Mika Serino, 26, from Japan to work with mentally retarded persons in Wauseon, Ohio, near Toledo.
Under ICYE sponsorship, 25 volunteers from a dozen nations, including Australia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and Iceland, are working on American problems across the country.
The Church of the Brethren began the program in Germany at the end of the 1940s. By the 1960s it became independent of the churches, although they continue to provide local support.
Edward Gragert, exective director of ICYE in New York, traces the origin of the program to German postwar efforts to estabish contacts and reconciliation with other nations.
The first efforts were the international exchange of high school students. Some students sought to expand their experience by doing volunteer work in the communities of their exchange schools.
Mr. Gragert said that in the late 1960s the program adopted a new goal: ''to encourage all participants to recognize the social-political situations'' of the host countries.
Out of that perspective came the volunteer service for persons up to age 24, and involvement in women's rights, low-income neighborhoods, and aid to the disabled and elderly.
Some churches and professional associations operate exchange programs, but neither Gragert nor Otter know of other projects that could be considered independent reverse peace corps bringing foreign aids to help Americans solve Americans' problems.