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A U.S. Loss, a Russian Loss

January 04, 2003

A decade after the U.S. Peace Corps arrived in the former Soviet Union, Russia has told the organization's volunteers to pack their bags and find a country that really needs help.

Fine. It's probably time. Still, it will be a loss for both nations.

The peculiarly American organization's stated mission is to promote world peace and friendship through volunteerism -- a humble goal as hard to quantify as it is important.

Take the story of Chris Mahon, a resident of Walnut Creek, Calif., who in his early 20s spent two years as an English instructor at a grade school in Ryazan, a small city near Moscow.

Besides teaching, Mahon wrote a grant to fund an Internet resource center at his school and raised the money to buy supplies for art therapy at a children's psychiatric hospital. Along the way, he also made friends, among them two brothers who cobbled him a pair of winter boots.

Since its creation in 1961, more than 165,000 men and women have worked as Peace Corps volunteers in more than 135 nations. Volunteers receive intensive language and cross-cultural training to help them adapt to the nations they will serve. Some teach English, math or sciences. Others work with local people in programs designed to protect the environment or to create economic opportunities.

In Central America, volunteers have provided support to communities devastated by earthquakes and hurricanes. They've worked to help people overcome disease and poverty in Africa, Central and East Asia, Europe and the Pacific.

Along the way, they learn about distant places. And when they return to the United States, they bring insight into how other people live and think that they are likely to share with too often insular neighbors and co-workers.

Russian officials had previously charged that Peace Corps volunteers were badly trained and had a penchant for spying -- accusations that U.S. officials rejected.

A foreign ministry spokesman was more gracious in dis-inviting the volunteers in December, suggesting that Russia had merely outgrown its need for their assistance.

The U.S. State Department took the news in stride. If Russia didn't want the Peace Corps, a spokesman said, "we can certainly ... send the volunteers where they are needed."

Such places are hardly in short supply.

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