President Lech Wałęsa in a speech to Peace Corps coordinators:
Many people, many leaders, have no idea how very much we need you. We know that the world is divided. We had a Wall, an Iron Curtain, an abstract economic and political philosophy. And that is why an enormous task awaits us in uniting nations and evening out inequalities. I believe we have not yet made full use of the vast potential within us. […]
Each and every one of us in Poland denounces the old system but each of us has something of the old system in us. Initiative was destroyed. We were brought up in a system of abstracts. And that is why it would be safer and wiser if we could make your tasks as easy as possible. […] Come to me and I will do my utmost to help you because I can see huge needs – but great opportunities, too.
Warsaw, 7 December 1992
Timothy Carroll (Peace Corps Director):
There won’t be many waves of Volunteers before the Poles will have caught up…This will be one of the world’s great and limited engagements. Poland will not need us for long. Rarely has a host country government of the Peace Corps been so cooperative, so truly a partner. Officials on the highest levels make things happen, support the Volunteers, intercede on behalf of the agency, entertain bold ideas. But more important than the government support is the spirit which these Volunteers bring with them.
Extract from an article in ‘Gazeta Stołeczna’:
Minister Jan Maria Rokita took twice as long to hoist the Polish flag as the Americans − Ambassador Thomas Simons Jr. and Timothy Carroll, Director of the Peace Corps in Poland. The ceremony took place during the grand opening of the Corps’ new head office – a small palatial white building on Bukowińska Street in the Mokotów district.
“I know what value the Americans place in the raising of the national flag. When I took part in the ceremony, I wanted to show that the work you do merits the raising of the national flags,” said Minister Jan Rokita.
“It is difficult to add anything to the words of Minister Jan Rokita,” stated the Ambassador in his speech, “especially when it is so cold.”
The ceremony concluded with the firing of three petards after which the Corps Director invited everyone inside. Those who wanted to light a cigarette had to stay outside.
Warsaw, December 1992
Ted Kontek (Business Director in the Warsaw Peace Corps Office):
When we began our operations in Poland, we were approached by many people. Every Mayor wanted to have his own American. Initially, we worked as we did in Third World countries – we assigned teams to the poorest parts of the country, on the eastern borders of Poland. Apart from a few instances, these ventures were unsuccessful. Our experience to date did not work in Polish conditions. On the other hand, the Mayors had not prepared concrete tasks for our volunteers, and had not provided interpreters. Town Councils were under the impression that the Americans had come to hand out cheques.
Krzysztof Strzemeski (Foreign Language Teacher Training College employee):
In the early 1990s, you did not hear a great deal of English spoken although people were turned on by the prospect of contact with foreigners. Being an Americanophile (as most people were at that time), I gladly applied to work for the Peace Corps during my summer vacation. I thought this would be a one-off job but a few months later I had a ’phone-call from Jean Żukowski-Faust, the First Education Deputy to the Peace Corps Education Director in Poland, asking me to come for an interview for a full-time job since I had apparently proved myself.
Beata Jachura-Pressello (training coordinator of Peace Corps trainings):
There was an almost family atmosphere in the Office. Demands were made but everyone was friendly and supportive. That’s when I had my first experience of an ‘open door’ policy, which was unusual in Poland at that time; however, information about volunteers was not shared publicly. There were strict rules on confidentiality – you didn’t automatically know everything about everybody.
Małgorzata Kujawska (Polish language lecturer, subsequently coordinator of Polish language training for Peace Corps volunteers):
It was the beginning of 1990. A dreadfully pessimistic time. I was approaching the end of my studies but had no idea what I would do next. School did not seem to be an interesting prospect. I had had various temporary jobs. I’m a linguist and graduated in Polish language and literature. Then I had a ’phone call from my father who had seen an ad in a newspaper – the Peace Corps was looking for lecturers of Polish as a foreign language. Interviews were being conducted by Michael Honegger, the Peace Corps Director. It was not so much about teaching qualifications as about having an open mind. Although you did not have to teach with the help of translation, some knowledge of English was useful.
Edward Maliszewski (first Foreign Language Teacher Training College Director):
The idea that we should make use of volunteers came not from me but from the Education Inspectorate. I also set up the College on the initiative of the Education Inspectorate in September 1990 after a year’s stay in the United States. During my stay, I had looked at the structure of their colleges. I tried to make good use of the experience and knowledge which the Peace Corps volunteer had brought from the United States – the best source for such experiences. True, we already had a ready teaching programme prepared by the Ministry of National Education. It was not, however, suitable for implementation as it stood – for many reasons. Firstly, it was not possible to put together the sort of teaching body envisaged by the programme. We also thought that, since it was a programme for all colleges throughout Poland, it could not be suitable for each individual college. And anyway, we had our own ambitions.
Iwona Lamża-Furman (Polish language teacher, later coordinator of Polish language teaching in the Peace Corps):
Before that first meeting with the volunteers [during preparatory training in Podkowa Leśna in 1991] I was a little nervous despite having worked in Great Britain at one time. We had only just emerged from Communism where there was practically no contact with foreigners. Their arrival was very important to me. And then they arrived… and they, too, were a little anxious. Very soon the ice was broken. I can honestly say that I fell in love with those Americans at first sight. Then I realised how different the Peace Corps was to all my other foreign contacts – the volunteers proved wonderful, charming students.
Peace Corps Office employees received copies of applications from Washington. My duties included selection of target positions for the volunteers. I spoke to directors of schools, ‘guardians’ whose task it was to look after the volunteers and who would be able to communicate in English. Every school had to have a teacher of English because the Peace Corps placed a great deal of importance on transfer of skills and transfer of ‘know-how’ to a local contact. Once the volunteers left, these ‘guardians’ would remain and would pass on their skills. It was also the first time that I heard the phrase: “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” The Peace Corps was also careful to ensure that a volunteer did not take jobs away from local people.
First we chose small localities which were in real need of volunteers and which would ensure that the volunteers had satisfactory conditions. Sometimes, the chosen localities would turn out to be on our medical officer’s black list, as in the case of Śląsk [Silesia]. When making arrangements, I made sure that the volunteer would be assured of privacy in his lodgings. Young Americans are independent creatures and any attempts to feed them, for instance, were not appreciated.
Volunteers of ethnic origin, or of a different sexual orientation were generally allocated to positions in larger towns. As regards a lack of tolerance among Poles, which was unduly stressed during sessions for volunteers, we – the Polish staff of the Peace Corps – wrote a letter to the Peace Corps Director, asking him not to provoke stereotyping in training sessions. The person in charge of cross-cultural training later apologised for his generalisations.
Michael Honegger was remarkably sensitive and open-minded in his selection of a group of twelve lecturers in Polish as a foreign language. They were young people with varying experience of teaching but who knew English and were prepared to take on the project. Our task was to master a certain type of methodology and to apply it in the preparation of a Polish language course for Peace Corps volunteers. We were to work on this during a two-week training course in Mała Wieś, near Warsaw; future teachers of Hungarian also took part in the course as a Peace Corps was also being established in Hungary at the time.
The training was conducted by lecturers of English as a foreign language from America and they were highly competent in the methodology. They introduced us to unusual skills and taught us in accordance with a communicative language teaching method which had proved itself in the United States. During these training sessions we taught the Hungarians and they taught us. For me this was a completely new and innovative approach. I worked on a total of six such programmes. We were thrilled when, during the third session, it turned out that halfway through the course these people were beginning to speak Polish.
Transfer of a volunteer to a different placement was generally made on the basis of his own specific situation. For example a young woman volunteer was placed with a family where, on sweltering hot days, the father would walk around wearing only his underpants. It was not just a question of approaching him and telling him to get dressed – it was important that both parties be comfortable during this association which, after all, was expected to last some three months. Money was an important factor for almost all the families which provided lodgings for volunteers during their preparatory training. There were also families where the children were learning English and then the deciding factor was the opportunity for daily conversation in English. In some cases, the motivation was loneliness.
Grzegorz Tkaczyk (Town Council employee):
In the spring of 1996, a young woman visited the then President of Radom and introduced herself as a representative of the Peace Corps’ Polish mission. At that time I dealt with numerous international contacts. She explained that the Corps had chosen Radom as the venue for training of American volunteers. My task was to create a data base of Radom families who would be prepared to take in someone from the United States, regardless of race or age, and to provide bed and board for them for a period of three months. I was to inform the families of the purpose of the visit and of the remuneration which the family would receive.
I did not want to select Radom inhabitants whose primary interest was the money they could earn in exchange for such hospitality. My announcements, therefore, mentioned only application dates and my telephone number. This turned out to be a good approach. Those who expressed an interest had to pass my initial vetting process. I sounded them out as to their motives by asking a few innocent questions. As the ratio of interest to the number of placements was considerable (between 80 and 150 families), I had plenty of choice. In the first place, I eliminated those families which considered that for about 100 zloties per month they would have a nanny for their offspring.
There were also genuine enthusiasts, people who were curious about behaviour and traditions with which they had not had previous contact – in other words, people who wanted to learn something new. The results of such tactics were already visible during the second year of the project. None of the Peace Corps representatives wanted to replace either me as the initial organiser, or the considerable number of families which had been entered permanently on the list as being ‘totally reliable’. And I must add that this was not just true of my list but also of the American register.
We made scheduled visits to volunteer host families but there were sometimes additional visits if a volunteer was in need of help. Some matters could be resolved on the ’phone. Generally the problem lay in loneliness and home-sickness and the fact that volunteers in small town schools often felt as if they were constantly on show. There could also be problems with the lodgings, with the hot water supply – ordinary everyday matters.
Volunteers had tough times. For example, I had a volunteer who was Jewish and I think she really struggled with the anti-Semitism and the history. It’s pretty brutal. And I saw a lot of racism, which was tough. Finally, I’m gay so it was tricky tip-toeing around that – even in Warsaw – not really knowing if things were going to work out if I were to “out”. We started the fist sort of ‘rainbow’ group of expats and Poles, though, and I made some of my best pals that way. Good times. Besides that, the winters were pretty harsh. I had a fireplace and that was really nice.
Janusz Wojcieszek-Łyś (host family):
That first meeting with volunteers was always exciting. Tension, expectation… who might it be? We didn’t really have any preconceived ideas about Americans but we were curious as to the sort of person he or she would turn out to be. During our volunteer’s stay with us we were a sort of replacement for her family, we provided her with bed and board. The Corps gave us money towards her stay. Our role was to look after her, to take her around, to do some sight-seeing. We were host to three volunteers. We enjoyed the experience.
Moderation of communication in the Polish language between the volunteers was a challenge for us. We wondered how best to step away from our ‘teaching rostrum’. We would sit in a circle. A language teacher usually creates a situation which ensures that pupils do not step beyond parrot fashion repetition. In our case, we wondered how we could get a pupil to ask questions before he had learnt any Polish.