|Albanian Volunteers at Water Station during Service Project at the Grand Park Tirana|
The word service has seven definitions. Ranging from maintenance of machines to religious rituals, the word “service.” in the case of Peace Corps matches the Marriam-Webster dictionary entries of “the action of doing work for or helping someone,” and “an act of assistance.” Our training to become Volunteers was called “Pre Service Training” and keeping with the theme, we just finished an “IST” or “In Service Training” to equip us for our assignments. Before the “IST” we had an “AVC” or “All Volunteer Conference” where the classes of the year before mine, and my class of Peace Corps Volunteers gathered to hear one anothers stories and participate in a first of its kind in Albania, multi agency service project.
|Cooking up After the Fourth of July BBQ at the US Ambassador's Residence|
Every year, the United States Ambassador hosts a “post Fourth of July” party for Peace Corps Volunteers at his residence. This year was no different, and our Country Director decided to combine an All Volunteer Conference (AVC) along with a joint service project in Tirana.
(Sorry about all the letters, this I am learning, is basically how PCV ((Peace Corps Volunteers)) speak with staff and the CD (Country Director,)) apparently staff is not shortened to (S,) for obvious reasons, and saying titles is well, so not PC ((Peace Corps and not Pericardium, Post coitus, Pancreas or Politically Correct.)) I am not sure this has to do with trying to conserve breath by eliminating extended syllables, save ink on print materials or a way to create a tribal language that only we in PC (see above first definition) can decipher, but if one wants to get with the program here in Albania ((HC or Host Country)) one has to learn what these letters mean in addition to the HCL ((Host Country Language.)) With my medical background, I can assure you it is utterly confusing to have all these letters flung about in conversations and memos, I am thinking they are talking about medical tests or pathological states, which in some cases are actually more descriptive that the intended phrase………)
Back to the AVC…… What was unique about this effort was to bring the entire corpus of volunteers together in once space. We A20’s (The 20th Albanian Peace Corps Volunteers class) Had yet to meet all the G19 (Group 19, the name was changed with my class) It was so inspiring to meet all the faces behind the names, and hear about their respective projects. It was also a shot in the arm so to speak to see that volunteers had served before us, lived through the experience and were there to tell their stories.
The focus of the gathering was on “service,” a term our CD likes to infuse in most of her addresses to the volunteers. In fact, she always signs her emails “in service.” Our first speaker was via Skype from the USA. Retired Senator Harris Wofford. Harris was in President Kennedy’s administration as Special Assistant to the President for Civil Rights. He worked with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Senator Wofford also worked with Sargent Shriver to found the Peace Corps and later collaborated with President Clinton to help create AmeriCorps. Our Country Director was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and worked in developing and implementing AmeriCorps. Americorps is a governmental service organization similar to Peace Corps, only based and executed on American soil. It was very inspiring to say the least to be addressed by Senator Wofford. He worked to found the Peace Corps as well as carrying out the goals of King, and urged us to keep the flame going, especially during such dramatic social and political times in the USA. Wofford also spoke of how central youth and students were in the creative enthusiasm both for the formation and implementation of Peace Corps. He charged us to carry on that spirit that is so necessary during our challenging era.
|PCV and Tirana Parks Department helping Trees at the Grand Park, Tirana|
The next day was spent collaborating with the Tirana Parks and Recreation department and a newly formed Albanian organization “Different Weekend,” or as the natives would call it “Fundjavë Ndryshe” There is a Facebook page of the same name, please “like” it to keep abreast of their impressive activities. We American volunteers were rewarded for our work with tee shirts commemorating our 20 years of service in Albania. Donning the shirts, sun screen, hats and garden gloves, we all went to the Grand Park of Tirana to help mitigate the effects of the drought that was affecting Albania. What was particularly impressive was the extreme heat in which our service project was conducted. I can speak for myself in that I looked like I had jumped into the lake after the mornings activities.
|Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj, Grand Park Tirana|
The Mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, is a progressive visionary who was initially inspired by Peace Corps Volunteers when he was a school boy. He has initiated numerous projects like a plastic bag ban and tree plantings. We were charged with helping the young trees this vibrant mayor had gotten planted in the park. As anyone who has been part of a city wide tree planting knows, the planting is the easy part, it is the care and watering that makes it sustainable. Due to lack of funds and basic drought conditions, the Parks and Rec department of Tirana has had difficulties in tending to the trees as well as basic fire abatement in this very beautiful and well loved park. Along with the Green Shirted Tirana public works employees, Peace Corps and Different Weekend volunteers worked shoulder to shoulder helping to loosen dirt around the young trees (which at times might have been better served with jack hammers the ground was so dry and dense.) We cut weeds which in some instances were about 3 feet high, watered and basically made the place look quite spiffy. We were told by the Mayor during his press conference that our combined morning efforts would have taken the park employees weeks to accomplish.
|Clean Up Crew at Grand Park Tirana Service Project|
While we Americans are used to such volunteer efforts, this collaboration was a first in Albania. It has been about a generation since the fall of communism. While the nation is still reeling and adjusting to this event, one thing that has taken this long for the economy and civilians to become stable enough were the concept of volunteerism from the natives has become an acceptable, even an enthusiastic reality for the people of Albania.
|Tirana Park Workers, Grand Park Tirana|
With the fall of communism, there was a rush from both America and the European Union to help modernize and stabilize Albania. USAID, the European Union, various religious organizations and Peace Corps came to help fill the void left by nearly 50 years of an isolated dictatorship. It has not been a smooth path of recovery, but the combined efforts of effective aid, diplomacy and the resiliency of the Albanian people has resulted in dramatic advances. In the early days of post communism, volunteerism was seen as something foreigners did to and for Albania. The word volunteer (vulnetar) had bad memories and connotations, as a misnomer for enforced work camps and slave labor on behalf of the government. It is also difficult for a people who are struggling to feed themselves and combating corruption to have the energy or time to volunteer. Thanks to great efforts in no small part of the Embassy of the United States and the efforts of our Ambassador, corruption is being cleaned up and sustainable businesses are being set up. As my pastor used to say, one has to be in a place where they can help others, the “put your own oxygen mask on before you help your children on the air plane” analogy. The people of Albania are now ready and very willing to help themselves. I saw this miracle of transformation in action on that steaming hot morning in central Tirana.
|Panel at Univeristy Hall|
After our fire and drought mitigation activities in the park, we were treated to a panel discussion in the very hall at the University of Tirana, where the students had started the uprising that led to the fall of the communist government. One of the leaders of that historic event was present on the panel. Blendi Gonxhe was a student during the fateful days of late autumn of 1990. He is now the Parks Director for the city of Tirana. He was joined by the US Ambassador Donal Lu, Arber Hajdari, founder and director of a Fundjavë Ndryshe/Different Weekend, Manjola Gega, teacher from Rreshen and founding board member of Girl Scouts of Albania, Enrik Deda, student from Rreshen and Girl Scouts Volunteer, Gillian Richter, Peace Corps Volunteer and AmeriCorps Alumni, Michael McLemore, Peace Corps Volunteer and AmeriCorps Alumni and Ola Keci, college student from Shijak Albania and Fundjavë Ndryshe Volunteer.
We listened to how Blendi Gonxhe described the fateful events leading to the collapse of communism, and how he has experienced his nation since those dramatic days. Ambassador Lu shared that he too, was a Peace Corps Volunteer and how that shaped his desire to serve in the Foreign Service. Manjole Gega spoke of how she along with Peace Corps Volunteers created the environment for Girl Scouts Albania to thrive. Fundjavë Ndryshe founder Arber Hajdari and fellow volunteer Ola Keci gave us details of how they started this organization and had raised over 2 million Euro from Albanians within and abroad in just two years to help the most needy citizens of this emerging nations. Projects ranging from help to pay hospital bills, to repairing houses, weekend service projects and recovery from natural disasters are quickly addressed by Fundjavë through its efforts. The American Peace Corps volunteers shared how both their Americorps and Peace Corps inspired them to give back to their communities at home and abroad.
What struck me as I listened to the stories was how Albania had been exposed to Peace Corps Volunteers for most of the time since the revolution that had occurred in the hall where we were sitting. The mayor of Tirana was served by Peace Corps Volunteers as a boy, and the director of the park services in Tirana had by his actions made it possible for everything to happen since the Autumn of 1990. Gonxhe was asked why he did not run for public office. His response was that he felt he could do more for his people outside organized government. From what I was witnessing through the panel, it seemed he had a point. In my own humble opinion, the mayor of Tirana is the new face of politics in Albania, one inspired by public service as demonstrated by his programs to plant trees, bring healthy food to school children and ban the ubiquitous plastic bags that are choking Albania's beautiful landscapes. It struck me that through the long process of consistent service in this emerging nation, Peace Corps had inspired a new generation of public good.
|Fundjavë Ndryshe Volunteers, Grand Park Tirana|
I think it is profound that the service organization I am involved in through the United States government is called the “Peace Corps.” It is fitting that what we do is called “service.” As Kennedy and so many presidents after him often say, the United States does not wish to go to war. War in and of itself is often a quick way to solve disputes and address certain injustices, but the lasting road to what I would call deep diplomacy and global citizen ship is through peaceful service. The creativity, passion and in many cases long slog of Peace Corps Volunteers under seemingly insurmountable odds in many instances actually does pay off in the long run. In our own way, we paved the road for the service project that day, of both governmental, local and international volunteers to come together to address the drought and help the people of Tirana have a safe, beautiful place to rest, exercise and contribute to their fresh air. It was a first ever in Albania, and I for one was proud to be part of the service to this emerging nation of incredibly resilient and generous people.
The people of Albania love their country and are eagerly working to make it better through Fundjavë Ndryshe and other organizations. It was a grand weekend at the Grand Park Tirana indeed!