Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Peace Corps Evacuates Volunteers from Ukraine

New York TImes photo.
Dear friends:  The  US Peace Corps has evacuated all volunteers from Ukraine, citing the "volatile" and "unstable" situation. People who work at Peace Corps headquarters in Kiev and my manager Vasyl said the volunteers in Khargiv, Lugansk and Crimea oblasts, along the Russian border, were out first.  Now all 250 volunteers are  back in  the US, housed at a place outside of Washington, DC.  They are anxiously waiting to see if there are any changes for the better in the next 45 days, during which period they can be called back, or elect to end their service.  

"The next 45 days?" I queried my friend Barb, who served for two tours of duty (4 years) in Crimea and had just arrived in DC."That's a long time."  

"Yes, and especially in Crimea, and along the border," she said.  She was deeply worried, given the tortured history of the Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, and Russia's closeness to Crimea, which houses its Naval fleet in Sevestopol.  This is where Yanukovich is hiding out, too, not surprisingly.  Violence  is not out of the question; not at all.      

I understand Barb's concerns.  I served in Starobelsk, Ukraine, in the far-east, near the Russian border. Also, it’s not easy getting out of these oblasts and up to Kiev. It took me two hours to get to Lugansk to catch an overnight train to Kiev, a 22-hours train ride. Some volunteers had even longer trips (we compared "hardships" but not often).   

Evacuating volunteers from any country is a sad move of last resort. It’s happened in various African countries, in Georgia, in South American countries, but seldom from Eastern Europe.  An evacuation order indicates how vulnerable, unpredictable, and dangerous the political situation has become.   

Barb indicated that most volunteers felt safe within their communities, but of course the Peace Corps' first concern is for the safety of all volunteers.  

A new government is forming.  But Russia's Putin is not going to accept such a revolutionary change without a fight. Russia has put its army on high alert. Crimea's pro-Russian majority of 58% are being whipped up to protest any changes. The borders are increasingly unsafe.  Violence hovers.  

What will happen?  Quo vadis Ukraine?  

It's my fervent hope that President Obama bends a bit on his "neutrality" position, and joins Germany and other EU nations in giving financial and other support. It's how Europe survived after World War II. Why not Ukraine?   It's the largest country in Europe. Its natural and human resources are enormous. It was once the breadbasket of Europe.  Its potential to become a great modern country, a shining star in Eastern Europe, is vast.  

We  have to do more than pray for Ukraine. We have to help; we have to lend a hand.    

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Changing Face of East Toledo: LeSo Gallery and Elliot Charney's Thailand Exhibit

Elissa, Philip and I at LeSo Art Gallery in East Toledo to view Elliot Charney's
Thailand exhibit. A bold red, white and black mural on building by Matt Taylor.
"We're working with local businesses, artists, and community people to help change the face and spirit of the East side," said Adam Soboleski, a ceramic artist and co-owner with Amber LeFever of LeSo Gallery.

We were at the LeSo on Starr Avenue in East Toledo to see Elliot Charney's photography exhibit of his time in Thailand, made possible by an emerging-artist award from the Toledo Museum of Art. Elliot's photos show the people, culture, countryside, the daily life of Thailand, the sensitive perspective of a sensitive photographer.

We not only took in a lovely exhibit that captured the "soul of humanity" across the world, but came away with a lesson in community change from the bottom up.

"We are using art to preserve and restore our neighborhood," Bradley Scherzer, the assistant director and marketing person, said.

"I have to admit, I seldom cross that bridge," I confessed. "In fact, I wouldn't be here now if it weren't for this exhibit."

I felt kind of bad. Adam and Brad understood. "That's why we're out to reclaim this historic immigrant neighborhood, it's great architecture and hard-working people, to show the best side of the East side."
The LeSo Gallery is committed to doing its part to beautify East Toledo through art exhibits, educational programs, workshops for kids, and social commitment. Check out their website ( and facebook page to learn more and find out about upcoming events.

The bold mural on the 1903 building, which retains its exquisite high tinned ceiling and no doubt has lots of stories to tell, does just that. The mural pops! It was painted by Toledo muralist Matt Taylor.  This is the same artist who, along with muralist MEDE, painted "Toledo Loves Love" in the uptown neighborhood near Manos' restaurant on Adams and 13th.  Rachel Richarson of Arts Corner Toledo (ACT) and well-known musician introduced me to that project and its efforts to bring together artists and activists to revitalize downtown neighborhoods. Same thing's happening in the Warehouse District.

The East side also boasts some great community gardens, not far from the Maumee River, which I learned about through beekeeper Karen Wood and our Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. These gardens (there are more than 100 all over the city) have become gathering places to grow and share food, to involve adults and kids in nature, to develop self-sufficiency, healthy lifestyles, and community spirit.They are urban oases.

I'm beginning to see that "all things are connected,"  just like Chief Seattle once said.  Just as my brother Loren taught me.

Poking around the corners and beneath the surface of Toledo and its environs, I am discovering all kinds of cultural, economic and social activities that are enriching this special place on planet Earth.  A renaissance is taking place at the grassroots level.

Our trip to LeSo Gallery to view a photography exhibit transformed into a lesson confirmed through my Peace Corps experience in Ukraine: change takes place from the bottom up. It's universal, part of the human experience, whether we live in Thailand or Toledo, as Elliot captures so beautifully in his photos.

Mural byMr. Taylor and MESE, commissioned by Racchel RIchardson's Arts Corner Toledo,(ACT)
on Adams at 13th, in Toledo's Uptown District. ACT brings together  artists and
activists to revitalize Toledo neighborhoods.

Learn more about East Toledo history in East Side Story,
by Larry R. Michaels (amazon photo).

Monday, February 10, 2014

Olympics and Peace Corps: Shared Spirit

"Olympians represent their countries on a massive international stage. In many cases, they're the most prominent figures from those countries, tasked with making a good showing and building a national reputation in the world. It's a great honor, but also a tremendous responsibility full of pressure."
  Eric Freeman, USA Bobsledders: American Soldiers, Yahoo News, 9 February 2014

"The US Peace Corps is a preeminent international service organization that sends Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world.  Volunteers work at the grassroots level toward sustainable change that lives on long after their service, at the same time becoming global citizens and serving their country. The Peace Corps' mission is to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals: 
  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans" (

I think the Olympics and the Peace Corps have a lot in common. 

“I don’t think so, Fran,” a friend says.  “The Olympics are all about sports competition.  The Peace Corps has nothing to do with sports." 

True, they are not the same. Olympians compete.  Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) collaborate. Olympians focus on their sport. PCVs focus on learning the needs of the community to which they are assigned. Olympians spend a lifetime perfecting their skills. PCVs are noted for "on the job training," learning as they go. Olympians are specialists, PCVs "jacks of all trades."

But the spirit is the same. The spirit of  international understanding and goodwill. Olympians and Peace Corps Volunteers do their best to represent their countries in a positive light, and in so doing, increase cross-cultural understanding and help promote world peace.  We are all the same.  
yahoo image
Through the Olympics, we get to see more of the world, to honor the best athletes at the top of their game, celebrate their skill and incredible determination, appreciate the quest for excellence. Our commonalities are more important than our differences. The Parade of Nations embodies this spirit, the heart and soul of the Olympics, the meaning and purpose. A spirit of friendly competition.  Patriotism and global understanding, hand in hand.
Sledding with Luba, Irina, and Nikita in Starobelsk, Ukraine

Through the Peace Corps we also get to see and know more of the world.  We learn about other countries, become friends with the people, and they learn about America along the way.  Mutual discovery, making a difference, building friendships and peaceful change from the bottom up. The Peace Corps way.

Sure there's lots to criticize, but I choose to see the positives. So one of the snowflakes on the virtual Olympic flag didn't do what it was supposed to do at the brilliant opening ceremony at Sochi.  So what? Forget the petty politics, the judgmental attitudes, the hyper-vigilant critics. Host countries do their best to showcase their best. Let's honor that.  Let's honor the common spirit of the Olympics and the Peace Corps!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Varujan Boghosian at TMA: Art for all Ages

Above, Modern art, Miro and Matisse, Frank Stella sculpture, hands-on sculpture-making, and the Varujan Boghosian
 (American-born, 1926) exhibit at Toledo Museum of Art, with Philip and GranE.  Below, my very favorite artists! 

"Look, we can make our own sculpture," Philip shouted with glee, as he pulled his GranE and me into a Varujan Boghosian work space.  A large table was full of all things Boghosian finds and uses in his art.  So we went at it.  Philip and GranE built a doll and moosie sculpture and Nana Frana used sundry metal objects around a white church. They both looked like altars to art. 

After a splendid time building our sculptures, using our imaginations, we walked through several galleries (stopping a lot in all of them) to the Boghosian exhibit.  The exhibit featured a variety of collage and assemblage works,  combining symbolism, myth, dream objects, odds and ends of history and real-life experiences.   Great for kids of all ages, I thought.   Here we are, three generations, and all equally entranced!  We basically followed Philip around from one work of art to the other. "Oh look at this one! Look at that one! Oh, it's a swan and a snake. Here's a tin man!"

"I don't make anything," Boghosian once said.  "I find everything."  His art classes at Yale and Dartmouth, where he taught for many years, must have been lots of fun!

Elissa loved it. Another junk-yard devotee,  scavenger, beachcomber, collector!  Save everything you find. It can be used to create something new. "Mom, don't throw those magazines out!"  My beautiful gift of a new collage by Elissa, which she called "This is a story about coming home," proves that!

Philip might take after his GranE.  He likes to collect things, too.  Stones and pebbles, paper cutouts, action figures, little cars, stuffed animals, marbles and books, things found floating around, in the air, on the ground. The collector's gene, passed down through the generations!   The Boghosian exhibit was just the thing for both of my artists.  

What a great way to spend a Friday night, with a curious six-year old. 

"Nana Frana, I'm six and one-half!" 

"Oh yes, of course, and may you always have the wonder and awe and curiosity you have now!" 

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