The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Thursday, October 21

Libraries and Books

I never visited our local library. Other volunteers at other sites have done some amazing things with their libraries. My friend, Fran, set up a sizable collection of English reading books where none had existed before. So along with several other Peace Corps Volunteers, I decided to discover the situation in Konotop.

Our guide and interpreter for the day is Gregory. At 70 he speaks impeccable English and is a leader in the remnant Jewish community of Konotop. For many years, he edited a newspaper. He has a love of words and curiosity about life. He has become a good friend of us Peace Corps volunteers.

We discover the library on the ground floor of a block apartment building. It’s easy to walk by without noticing. It’s nothing like the ornate buildings that Andrew Carnegie was prone to build and endow. How fortunate we Americans are.

Inside on the left is a computer room and on the right are the book collections and reading room. A few young guys seem to be checking out the Russian version of Face Book and an older woman is quietly reading. Obviously, we are a disruptive entourage, but still we are warmly welcomed. For a few grievnah (less than a dollar), we become library members.

We ask about English books. The librarian takes us to a bookcase. Half ways down on a shelf are about a dozen – maybe eighteen books. I did not expect many, but I am surprised at so few. “Are there others somewhere else," we ask?

“No, they’re all here. “ In a town of nearly 100,000 people, less than two feet of shelf space holds Konotop’s entire collection of English literature.

Immediately, I think of Fran and how she transformed a similar situation. She created a Peace Corps Partnership Grant and with the help of family and friends, about 300 books were purchased forming a permanent collection.

A few weeks later, Gregory and I make an appointment with the librarian. I had promised to return and show pictures of Maine and America on my computer. I often do this as a way to build friendships. Most of the library staff crowd around a table as I show off the beauty of lighthouses, my garden, Lincoln Monument and more.

Later over tea, I propose a Partnership Grant to create a permanent English reading collection. I’m stunned when she says, “No.” Thinking that she does not understand, I explain again that it will be a grant in addition to the library’s current budget. The answer is still no. She adds, “It’s not in our work plan.”

Gregory is a good friend. He sees my disappointment. On the way home, we pass the building where he lived as a little boy. He insists on showing it to me. It’s an office now and inside a small room, about 10 x 12, is where his parents and siblings lived sharing a kitchen with other families down the hall. He tells me about being hungry as a boy – “so very hungry.”

He tells me about how the Soviets tried to control thinking. And then referring to the library and English books, he says, “Something good will happen. I know it.”

Disappointment leads me to think about alternatives. I make an appointment at the Polytechnical School. I propose the same Partnership Grant and this time teachers and librarians respond with enthusiasm. Gregory was right.
Reading room of the Polytechnical School

They show me a handful of old Soviet era English paperbacks. That’s it for English literature. They have English textbooks for classes, but nothing to open the world of English literature so that students can grow and learn on their own. Old Soviet era English books

The Director of the School joins our meeting. She says that ever since she visited Ames Iowa on an exchange program, it has been her dream to have an advanced English Literature Course. “Now I think my American dream will be possible,” she says with a broad smile.

I’m excited. This project will open the world of English literature from beginners to advance readers. We will include anthologies, poetry, young adult literature and of course, many of the Classics. We will purchase 10 English/Russian dictionaries to help students with new vocabulary. Students give thumbs up to the Project

In addition we will publicize this new collection to the entire community. As a result, Konotop will have a new source of knowledge, inspiration and cross cultural understanding, a way to learn about life and the world, and an encouragement to imagine and achieve dreams.

As this project takes shape, I am deeply saddened by the sudden death of a wonderful man. My friend, guide and translator, Gregory, died on October 10th. He was hospitalized in early October, had an operation and showed a few sign of recovery. But then he died. What sadness.

How he loved words. How well he spoke English. What a wonderful friend he was. His stories and reassurance echo in my heart. “Something good will happen. ...I know it.”
. Shelves waiting for English reading books

If you would like to help with the English Reading Project, please send me an email at I’ll send you more information as soon as the Partnership Grant Proposal has been approved and posted on line by the Peace Corps. Thank you so much.

Thursday, October 14

Ordinary Life: Being a Peace Corps Volunteer

It’s the 120th Anniversary of the Polytechnical School. About 300 Konotop leaders from business and industry, the government and military as well as students and educators have come to celebrate this occasion.

In the front row sits the Mayor with Tatyanna, the Director, and other officials. I sit several rows back with my friend, Irina, who heads the Department of Families and Children Services. The long auditorium is filled with smiles. Oversized windows that line one entire wall emit a defused autumnal glow. It’s a warm festive occasion.

A month ago, I was invited to attend. And then last week, I was asked to say a few words. So here I am on stage. I start by speaking a little in Russian to the delight of the crowd. I think my Peace Corps’ language instructor would be proud.

Of course, a translator is next to me to carry-on with the speech. It’s Annya, my friend, who has helped me in so many ways before. She tells me she is a little nervous, but very honored to be a part of this program.
Built in 1974, the main building on the Polytechnical School's campus.

The year is 1890. Railroads are the new technology of the day. Steel rails are connecting cities and villages. Change is happening. Now you can go to Kiev in less than a day…Amazing.

But who will develop this technology? Who will manage and engineer the system? The answer is the Polytechnical School. From Czarist times through Bolshevik revolution, World Wars and Soviet rule to a new Constitution, Orange Revolution, elections and democracy, the Polytechnical School has adapted and survived.

The year is 1941. The Nazi war machine is on the march east. Instructors and students flee Konotop for the interior of Russia, but they keep on teaching. The School buildings are bombed and burned. Konotop becomes a charred skeleton of itself.

Yet when the students and instructors return in 1943, buildings are reconstructed from the rubble. Students build tables and chairs and book cases from salvaged wood and learn a valuable craft in the process.

The School becomes the pride of Konotop – a symbol of hope and normalcy in the post-war era.

Today the Polytechnical School has joined with the Konotop branch of the Sumy University forming a broader academic and technical Institute. Railroading is still offered but so are electronics, computer technology, social work, management and building trades.

As I finish my remarks, I realized that I am the only American here. It happens a lot being the only American at a gathering, but not in front of 300 people. I think what a privilege and honor.

I realize I’m here not because of me, but rather by what the Peace Corps does best. In 77 countries worldwide since 1961, the Peace Corps connects and integrates volunteers, like me, into their communities. I get to be my Country’s ambassador to Konotop.

The program goes on for 3 ½ hours. It’s long even by Ukrainian standards. Students perform dance and song routines telling the history of the School through the arts. And then more speeches and awards are given.

Some people leave early. But I stay even though I only understand every fifth word or so. I want to soak in this experience because something like this may never happen again for this American.