Peace Corps Burgeons in Europe
The US program grows fast in Czechoslovakia, where volunteerism is almost unknown
PRAGUE — WHEN Terese Piccoli first became interested in the Peace Corps, she was at home in Pittsburgh with two small children to look after. "I thought my time for doing such things was past," she says.
Now, seven children later and a widow in her 60s, she's a volunteer English teacher with the Peace Corps in Czechoslovakia. She's landed, she says, "in heaven."
Mrs. Piccoli also has both feet in the fastest-growing region for the Peace Corps. There are close to 500 volunteers in Central and Eastern Europe, and 500 more are planned for the former Soviet Union.
"Europe is rapidly becoming a big part of the Peace Corps," says Stephen Hanchey, director of Peace Corps Czechoslovakia.
Branching out into Europe has helped recruit volunteers, he says, "because it's been a whole different kind of experience available to people who might not be very interested in going to a real hot climate or a seriously underdeveloped part of the world."
Czechoslovakia is a bit of a late bloomer as far as Peace Corps activity goes. The first volunteers arrived in November 1990, after programs in Hungary and Poland were already under way. But there are now 60 volunteers here, and that should grow to 125 by the end of 1993.
Most of the volunteers in this country teach English, though 14 of them are environmentalists just starting to work with regional and local governments. The army of English teachers is spread across Czechoslovakia, but only two of them (Piccoli is one) landed in the plum location of Prague the Florence of Central Europe."
A few of the volunteers are serving directly in high schools, but the Peace Corps gets more bang for Uncle Sam's buck by training Czech and Slovak teachers, many of them teachers of Russian who find themselves skilled in a language now totally rejected in this country.
Peace Corps volunteers say it is possible to recycle Russian teachers into English ones.
"Czech teachers of Russian are very good English students. They're really enthusiastic," says Gerri Carlson, a teacher from Montana now sharing her know-how at the teachers college in Hradec Kralove, near the Polish border. m not sure many of them were really happy teaching Russian."
The Russian teachers, according to volunteers, are gifted at languages and already know three or four. They are mostly women, going through a retraining process that volunteers say is sometimes a great personal sacrifice.
"They're overburdened," says Ms. Carlson. "Many of them are women with children and families. They're not only still teaching [at their regular jobs], they're also coming to school one day a week and studying, and they're also doing all the things women do in Czechoslovakia."
The Russian teachers in volunteer Jim Davison's class "are very highly motivated because their lives depend on this skill," he says. English conversation, say the volunteers, is naturally the weak point of their students, although they excel at grammar.
Czechoslovakia needs about 5,000 English teachers, according to Mr. Hanchey. So far, 200 to 300 have graduated from teacher colleges where they studied with Peace Corps volunteers. "We're making a dent," he says.
The volunteers say the Czechs and Slovaks thirst after English. Eighty percent of parents chose English for their children to study in school last year, says Hanchey, though German is "on the rise" because of the commercial ties the Germans have here.
"It's my dream to visit the United States," says Gabina Muchova, an 18-year-old high school student taking a Peace Corps conversation class in Rokycany, near the German border. "Eng- lish is the best I can learn now," she says, and she wants to continue studying it at the university.
For now, there is no time limit on the Peace Corps program here, but Hanchey says the speed of its development is hampered by budgets in Washington and the expansion of the Peace Corps into the Baltic states and the former Soviet Union.
The program runs on a mere $850,000 a year, because the volunteers receive a living-expense stipend of only $150 a month. Housing (sometimes a dormitory) is provided by the colleges and universities where they teach. The stipend is slightly above the average monthly pay in Czechoslovakia. "We work and live at the same level as the Czech and Slovak people," says Hanchey.
MOST volunteers have masters' degrees and at least two years' teaching experience. They received three months of language training in Czech and Slovak when they arrived, as well as a month's training in teaching English as a foreign language. The volunteers teach all levels of English as well as American teaching methods - welcomed enthusiastically by some but rejected by others, say the volunteers.
Czechs, says Hanchey, are still "puzzling over" the fact that Americans leave the comfort and security of home to live for two years in an eighth-floor walk-up in a concrete apartment block.
"The concept of volunteerism itself is something that is almost unknown in this society," he says. The closest parallel was "socialist volunteerism harvesting sugar cane in Cuba, for instance. The American volunteers have had a "phenomenal" reception here in Czechoslovakia, says Hanchey, adding, ve never seen anything like it in my 15 years of working with Peace Corps."