Oak Park Village President David Pope served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand from 1990 to 1992. It was, he says, a fundamentally important experience in his life. On Wednesday, Nov. 2, Pope will tell how his Peace Corps service relates to his present role in public service at the annual meeting of the Oak Park Council on International Affairs.
His talk, "Peace Corps, Public Service and Politics," will highlight the 42nd School-to-School Benefit Dinner to be held at Oak Park and River Forest High School, 201 N. Scoville Ave. The dinner is an annual fundraiser for the council's ongoing partnership with the Peace Corps in support of a number of projects in developing countries.
For 42 years, the council has participated in a Peace Corps program that matches funds with needs identified by current Peace Corp volunteers. Typically, local communities contribute a share of the cost of each project, with the work being coordinated by the Peace Corps worker on site. Projects funded by the Oak Park group have included: building or renovating schools, libraries and medical facilities, teaching English and computer skills, providing counseling services for youth, supporting agricultural projects, and providing workshops on sewing, weaving and metal skills.
Although Africa has had the largest percentage of help with several hundred projects, funds have also gone to Latin America, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Europe.
For the two-and-a-half years Pope served in the Peace Corps in Thailand, he worked as an agricultural extension volunteer. "In that capacity, I worked side-by-side with farming families from upland communities supporting their efforts to move away from the practices of slash and burn deforestation," he said. "This was detrimental to the land and the economy. What was originally forest land was deforested in the '70s and '80s. I was working to help them adapt sustainable agriculture practices such as alley cropping. This is a way of preventing erosion so the quality of the soil remains high, enabling young families to keep planting without fear of erosion."
At the Nov. 2 dinner, Pope plans to discuss how the job of village president relates to the goals of the Peace Corps.
The Oak Park Council on International Affairs was founded in 1935 by Edna (Mrs. Henry) Austin, after operating for a few years on an informal basis. Elsie Jacobsen, legendary Oak Park activist who died in 2003, had the idea of starting a new program partnering Peace Corps volunteers with the International Council. She originally concentrated on providing schools to third world countries that she visited regularly.
The effort broadened after Jacobsen traveled to Washington, D. C., where she met with Sargent Shriver, then head of the Peace Corps. They worked out a way for the groups to work together: the Peace Corps would select projects based on where Peace Corps volunteers were stationed, and the council would provide financial support by raising the funds necessary to support the projects. Today, private contributions constitute the bulk of the funds raised. Over the 42 years since its formation, the Oak Park team has completed 332 projects.
According to former Peace Corps member Margaret Rohter, who serves on the Oak Park Council's board, "this has been an extraordinary year. We have built 31 projects all over the world. Many donations were made to the memory of Elsie Jacobsen and Colin Higgins, another dedicated member who died this year. Their memorials built the school library in Morocco. Another library was erected in Chad, funded by Frank and Kathleen Fletcher. In the Kyrgyz Republic, an HIV/AIDS project was given by Susan and Harry Meyers," she said.
Funding for 26 of the current projects was provided by Walter and Marguerite Bloch of River Forest, including support for a unique festival in Uzbekistan, which educated students of the Jizzakh and Guliston regions on the varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds of the 17 local Peace Corps volunteers.
The Nov. 2 program will start with appetizers and exhibits at 6 p.m., with dinner at 6:30 and the program at 7:45 pm. Tickets are $20 per person ($5 is tax deductible); students are $15, Patron listings are $60 and $70 and donors are $1,000. For information or reservations (due tomorrow), call 442-6163.