Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Peace Corps Success Story: Good news from Starobelsk, Ukraine

Photos of Starobelsk English Club
Does Peace Corps make a difference in the communities it serves? Here's one success story.  One of many.

I just received this good news from Starobelsk, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years, 2009-11: the Starobelsk Public Library has received 15 computers from the Bibliomist project.  At last.  Hurray. Ура! What fantastic news!

Bibliomist is a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project, managed by IREX, to computerize 1000 Ukrainian libraries. 

We started the process in Starobelsk in the fall of 2009.  That's when I read about the project online and immediately got information to share with the local public Library. The Library was skeptical at first. Some of you remember my blogging about it.  

How, I wondered, could I work with the Library to help it improve its services and grow into a 21st-century community resource?  How could we help make this Library a center of information, change and civic education?  

My models were our fantastic American libraries, but most Ukrainian libraries, especially in small towns and in the east, were far from that model.  Very far.  Most didn’t have computers; used old card catalogue systems; did not encourage borrowing; did little community outreach. 

The USAID “Windows on America” project helped Oblast (county)-wide libraries, and I remember how important it was to the Chernigov Biblioteca when I trained there.  I tried to get "Windows on America" for Starobelsk, appealed and begged, but the library is not county-wide and I couldn’t convince USAID to make an exception. 

So I began to position the Library to apply for the Bibliomist project, with the ultimate goal of getting 15 computers, support for internet connectivity, and computer training for the librarians.  It was a step-by-step process, not easy. The interpretive services of Natalia Dohadailo, who teaches English at the local university, were essential. We also had help from Anton the poet, whose mother was a librarian and friend of the director.

First I started an English Club; that took many cups of tea, patience, and perseverance.  Then, with a Peace Corps Partnership grant, and help from Toledo donors and many of you, we began an English-language book collection, another first for the Library.  Then we made an initial application to Bibliomist and learned we had to 1) begin with preparing the library for computer installation (modern wiring, sprinkler system, security), and 2) apply to Bibliomist for small community outreach grants. 

I raised funds ($800) from friends in the US for computer installation preparation, essential but not the most exciting part of the project.  With help from Marat Kurachevsky at Peace Corps headquarters and Bibliomist staff, the Library received a $2,500 grant to reach out to teachers and develop a "sister" partnership with an American library, the Boyd County Public Library in Kentucky.  Amanda Stein, the outreach coordinator, helped make that possible.  

The Library learned as it went. It didn’t know how to partner with the American library and of course had trouble with outreach and access.  Still, when I left, the Library was better positioned to get 15 computers. I was also hoping it would get a PCV to move it forward. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure it would happen.  

Then I got the news: the Starobelsk Public Library does, indeed, have 15 computers!  The Library and community will celebrate on 1 February 2013.  I hope I can Skype in and join the celebration.   

Peace Corps Volunteers often wonder whether or not they make a difference.  I wondered the same thing.  Now I can say my work did make a difference.  I left a small legacy in a village in far-eastern Ukraine. Not alone, of course, but in partnership with Starobelsk's concerned citizens and friends.  Together we helped “e-power” the library so it could in turn empower the community it serves.   

Peace Corps does makes a difference, one community at a time, from the bottom up, all over the world!  
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