`Peace Corps' Comes to America

Pilot program brings volunteers from overseas to improve social conditions in US inner city

PEACE is not a one-way street, to Tracy Mathieu. That's why she founded Foreign VIP, a ``reverse'' Peace Corps program to bring international volunteers to the United States. The goal is to foster understanding and improve social conditions here. Two foreign volunteers have spent a busy summer in Boston as part of a pilot program for the Foreign Volunteer Intercultural Program, the project's formal title. Charles Hutchinson is from Ghana, and Estera Boszormenyiova comes from Czechoslovakia.

``The Peace Corps is one way to give assistance to other countries,'' says 26-year-old Ms. Mathieu, but ``we definitely need it in the United States. My experience in the Peace Corps helped me gain insight. To have `reverse' Peace Corps can open eyes,'' she says in an interview with Mr. Hutchinson and Ms. Boszormenyiova. It's great that the US has a Peace Corps, she says, but why shouldn't the US benefit from such assistance?

The VIP volunteers have served in homeless shelters, hunger-relief food pantries, youth day camps, drop-in centers for the elderly, community cleanup projects, and other programs.

``There is a need to understand each other among nations of any form,'' says Hutchinson, an heir to a Fanti village in southern Ghana who was educated by US Peace Corps volunteers. ``Ghana is promoting understanding among nations, and certainly will be glad to know that someone from their country is promoting their culture,'' he adds.

A Czech's view of US

``You cannot know a man unless you walk in his shoes,'' says Boszormenyiova, quoting a familiar expression. She says that with this program, ``both sides are shared. We have come to understand a lot more of why things are the way they are.''

Of America's homeless problem, she says, ``from my view it is problem No. 1. It's so sad to see. I hope I will never see it in Czechoslovakia. We have problem of Gypsies, but here sometimes five times a day someone asks you for money and you stop and ask yourself, `Why are they so bad [off]?'''

The idea of a ``reverse'' Peace Corps is not new. A pilot program was developed in 1966 under Sargent Shriver (the Peace Corps's first director), but it was never officially established, says Mathieu, a Kennedy Institute Shriver Peace Worker. Foreign VIP is an attempt to re-initiate that concept. ``In this age, where interdependence is so relevant, it makes more sense to bring it back,'' she says.

Although Foreign VIP is not directly connected to the Peace Corps, it has adopted the same basic principles, says Mathieu, such as promoting understanding among people. Former Peace Corps volunteers have expressed an interest in becoming involved. The Boston chapter of returned Peace Corps volunteers, one of 150 such groups nationwide, is administering the pilot program, and chapter members have opened their homes to Hutchinson and Boszormenyiova. (Travel costs are paid by volunteers' home countries; volunteers get living expenses and a stipend from the VIP program while here.)

Future plans call for all 50 states to host Foreign VIP volunteers, helped by other returned Peace Corps volunteer groups, says Mathieu. Linda Gray, executive director of the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in Washington, says she is ``very excited about the program,'' saying that Foreign VIP is very practical, well-rounded, and ``so replicable.''

The insight and experience that Hutchinson and Boszormenyiova gain will create an energy to do something for their own country, says Mathieu, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and Guatemala. ``When Peace Corps volunteers serve abroad, they come back and have that new experience and they're so much more powerful to give new ideas to an organization,'' she says, adding that from 10 to 20 percent of returned Peace Corps volunteers serve in government or community organizations.

``I would like to set up community programs and an exchange program with America,'' says Boszormenyiova: ``I should understand the Western way of doing things and bring them back home - to organize things.''

She wants to promote the movement toward democracy in her own country. Hutchinson says he would like to set up a program like Boston's City Year - a youth community-service group that has been coordinating most of the two foreigners' volunteer activities. He also wants to get corporations involved in communities. ``You find that capitalism can't see a situation when there will be no homeless. Companies need to be stimulated to see they are part of the community, to build the community,'' he says.

They `brought a new world'

Foreign VIP is ``a fantastic initiative that deserves to have the support to be able to grow,'' says Lisa Ulrich, director of project development at City Year. She tells of how the volunteers ``brought a whole new world to the children'' in the inner city. One parent told Ms. Ulrich how excited her son was to learn about Czechoslovakia from Boszormenyiova. ``It's a very personalized way to teach multi-cultural education,'' Ulrich adds.

Does the program have any drawbacks? ``Not so far,'' says Mathieu, adding how grateful she is for the political support and the private donations and grants that fund the program, including backing from businessmen and Massachusetts' Congressional delegation. At first, she says, she thought there might be some negative reaction from people who might say that ``the US doesn't need the help.''

``All I've gotten is positive reinforcement,'' says Mathieu, who is one of eight children. ``What I was [also] worried about is whether the volunteers would be discouraged; and they've been enlightened. It's a learning and growing experience.''

``They really ask for flexibility, determination, and independence,'' says Boszormenyiova: ``It's testing myself.''

``Sometimes you find it discouraging,'' says Hutchinson. ``With city youth groups, it's actually hard to get along with them. These are stray kids,'' he says, adding that he is communicating better now and getting over his frustration. ``We think that in our countries they are more respectful,'' he says, speaking for Estera and himself. ``In the beginning it was very, very difficult. Everybody is the same; nobody is respected.''

``Charles just couldn't understand how these black children could be wise,'' Mathieu explains. ``In Africa, the children are so well-behaved.''

Mathieu hopes the national program will be on its feet in two years. ``Originally, I was thinking small,'' she says. ``I can see it as being larger in that the returned Peace Corps volunteers are interested in doing this. They want to still hold on to Peace Corps and the experience.''

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