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Embarking on global adventures

Sherry Mays

It takes a special person to volunteer to teach English. It takes even more of a special person to volunteer to teach English in a foreign country.

Truckee’s Virginia Knittle falls into that category. She volunteered three weeks to help students learn English in the remote eastern Polish town named Siedlce, pronounced Shed-el-sa.

The 67-year-old was not alone, four other Americans also made the trip to the side of the world where capitalism is a new concept, wartime scars are still healing and where Polish parents are realizing that in order to help with their children’s future success, English is necessary for global business.

“Of course the English language cannot be taught in only three weeks,” she said. “It’s more about sharing a language and learning from each other.”

As part of Global Volunteers’ program, Knittle and more than 500 other senior citizens have had the opportunity to travel around the world in a humanitarian effort to assist in education, and professional and medical services.

The Minnesota-based Global Volunteers program is a private, non-profit, non-sectarian development organization. It was founded in 1984 and operates under the power of local community leaders. Teams of volunteers, up to 125 groups per year, visit more than 16 other countries yearly.

Knittle said the experience gave her rare insights into the people of this emerging democracy even though she’s no stranger to international travel. She lived abroad in places such as France, Belgium, Germany and Korea while her late husband Joe served in the army.

“I felt I gained some insight into how it might have felt to live under a totalitarian form of government,” she said. “I also could experience, to a very small degree, what living in a country during a war with occupation by a foreign power might have been like. (Tours of) Auschwitz and Birkenau were unforgettable.”

Knittle said she chose a Polish trip because her grandparents immigrated from Poland at the turn of the century. She also has family and friendship ties to Germany and said she wanted an opportunity to travel overseas to visit.

“I loved living there (eastern Europe) with my husband,” she said. “I welcomed the chance to visit there again.”

The English-teaching partnership in Poland began in 1990 when Rural Solidarity invited Global Volunteers to assist in efforts toward democratization and free enterprise. Volunteers teach English as a foreign language to children and adults in classrooms and small groups, concentrating on improving conversational abilities and pronunciation. The students learn technique from the volunteers, most of whom are native English speakers.

“You don’t have to be an English teacher to be able to participate in this program,” Knittle said. “At first it is awkward, but you soon realize the students really want to learn English and they pick up on the language quickly.”

Knittle was assigned two classes – teenage English students and local library workers.

“The teens were the dickens as usual teenagers are,” she said. “The library workers were older and more serious, but not as eager as the kids to learn.”

Most people in the Siedlce area were friendly, healthy and pro-American, said Knittle. She added their hospitality was endless.

The group stayed at a manor set for artistic and scientific retreats. The manor, “Reymontowka,” was built several hundred years ago just outside Siedlce. She said it retained its character and charm with its woodworking and comfortable rooms.

Although the meals contained a majority of vegetables, Knittle said every meal was fit for a king with presentation nothing short of perfection.

“The table always looked so beautiful with all of the colorful and delicious vegetables and such,” she said. “Everyone was so gracious.”

Knittle said there were no bad experiences on her trip. She said she learned a lot and enjoyed traveling through Europe when her three weeks of volunteering were finished. She traveled along the Eurorail train system to Germany and then visited friends in Ireland.

She said an Irish woman summed up why European travel is easier than traveling across America.

“America is so unnecessarily large,” the Irish woman said. Knittle agreed.

“It’s so easy to travel across a country (Ireland) that is the size of South Dakota,” she said.

After spending seven weeks in Europe, Knittle said the next trip may be to China, although she would really like to return to eastern Europe.

“I never lived in China,” she said. “The culture there seems really interesting. I’m sure I will have the same great experiences I had in Poland there. I can’t wait for the next trip.”

Knittle encourages other senior citizens to look into the Global Volunteers or Elderhostel programs.

“Don’t just sit there and watch the TV,” she said as a message to fellow seniors. “Get up and do something. Do something you will feel good about like volunteering.”

Knittle said the organized trips are a great way for retired or single people to meet others.

“I’m so enthusiastic about these programs,” she said. “If anyone needs convincing I’m the perfect person to talk to.”

She began her volunteering with the Arkansas Heifer Program sponsored by the Elderhostel Service to educate impoverished communities about the care and possibilities of raising cattle. Usually female calves are donated to needy families. Education and pride are taught with the help of sharing skills.

“It’s a fun project,” she said. “There are others just as fun.”

Most recently, an Elderhostel group helped construct a length of the Donner Rim Trail in Negro Canyon above the lake. With the coordinating efforts of Truckee resident Pat Northrop, more than 30 seniors split rock and cut brush to lay a portion of the trail that will be used by hikers, bikers, cross-country skiers and horsemen.

The cost of developing-country service programs ranges from $995 to $1,995, excluding airfare. European programs are $1,695 to $2,395, and U.S. programs are $400. Included in the tax-deductible service program fee are all meals, lodging and ground transportation in the host community, volunteer orientation materials and project expenses.

Two- and three-week programs are scheduled throughout the year to Indonesia, Tanzania, Vietnam, Poland and China. Other two-week trips are scheduled to Ecuador, Turkey, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Ireland, Mexico, Ukraine, Spain, Italy, and Greece. One-week programs are offered in the United States.

For Global Volunteers information, call (800) 487-1074 or visit its website at http://www.globalvolunteers.org.

For Elderhostel information, inquire by writing to Elderhostel, 75 Federal St., Boston, Mass., 02110.

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