For two years, longtime Lutz resident Linda Reynolds found her home in a country whose population is about the size of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties put together.
The Republic of Macedonia, formed in the early 1990s following the breakup of Yugoslavia, was never a place Reynolds thought she’d ever found herself in. But that trip changed her life.
“I was a business manager, and one of the original employees of Transitions Optical back in 1992,” Reynolds said. “I helped to grow the business from a very small company to a worldwide leader in optical lenses.”
But after 18 years on the job, Reynolds knew it was time for something different. It was exactly when she found the Peace Corps.
“It’s something that I wanted to do ever since I was a child,” said Reynolds, who turned 57 last weekend. “I truly believe that the way the world gets to be a better place is by people connecting, and I think the Peace Corps is a fabulous way to serve the country.”
It takes a village
After a lengthy application process and extensive training, Reynolds found herself on a plane to Eastern Europe in 2011. While traditional Peace Corps jobs are thought of as doctors and language teachers, Reynolds was taking a different path: community and business development.
She set up shop in Kriva Palanka, a small town in the northeastern part of Macedonia, not far from the Bulgaria border where more than 14,000 people live. Reynolds connected with community leaders there to find out what the small town needed, and how she could make a difference.
One of her first targets was a fire station that probably hadn’t been touched since the 1950s, Reynolds said. It was in desperate need of renovation, so with the help of a $4,000 grant she obtained, Reynolds worked with the firefighters to spruce up the place.
“I got board, and they made cabinets,” she said, “I got PVC pipe, and they built a bathroom. I bought laminate floor, and they laid it. At the end of all of it, these firefighters had a professional place to work and to live, and every single firefighter contributed their time to make it happen.”
Even more, Reynolds was able to gel a team of loosely affiliated firefighters separated by political and other social differences.
“We are just talking about 13 firefighters, but this project turned them into a real team,” Reynolds said.
The right stuff
Peace Corps volunteers like Reynolds are really diehard individuals, said Alethea Parker, public affairs specialist for Peace Corps in Atlanta.
“It’s a large commitment to be away from your family and friends for two years,” she said. “But from our perspective, it’s very rewarding and impactful … and it is important work.”
The only requirements to become a Peace Corps volunteer are being at least 18 years old, and a U.S. citizen. But getting selected, that is a much more daunting process.
“Our application process is quite competitive,” Parker said. “Most of our programs do require at least a bachelor’s degree, and we are typically looking at several years of full-time professional work experience.”
But the number of applications doesn’t mean the Peace Corps isn’t in need of good candidates. With a little more than 8,000 slots available around the world and an annual budget about the size of an oil company’s daily profits, the Peace Corps must be very selective. That means background checks, physicals, and various tests to determine what kind of skillsets an applicant has.
Yet, being a Peace Corps volunteer has its advantages beyond just helping out overseas. Medical expenses are covered at 100 percent, and a decent stipend is offered to cover day-to-day living expenses.
“I served in Cameroon, and my stipend there was $230 a month,” Parker said. “That was a pretty good salary for where I was, and as long as you live a modest lifestyle, that kind of money can cover a lot.”
Life back home
Reynolds had a small apartment in Kriva Palanka where she adopted two cats — not a very common pet in that part of the world.
“People thought it was very, very odd that I had cats in my apartment,” Reynolds said. “There, cats are outside animals. So it was very hard to go to the supermarket in my little town and find the supplies I was looking for to take care of my cats.”
Reynolds has only been back in the United States for about four months, and after 34 years living in Lutz, has now settled in Atlanta closer to her children. Reynolds hasn’t quite decided what she wants to do with her life now that she’s back, but she’s definitely a much different person than when she left two years ago.
“I find myself less frantic,” she said. “I don’t have a job, but I’m not frantic about it. It’s too early for me to retire, and I’m too old to start a new career. But I would like to find something that will allow me to contribute to something in a meaningful way.
“I’m just trying to get my sea legs back and not rush into anything. And I’m fortunate that I don’t have to.”
The Peace Corps currently has 36 volunteers from the Tampa Bay area serving overseas, and more than 850 volunteers from the region have participated since President John F. Kennedy founded the program in 1961.
Right now, however, the Peace Corps needs 1,000 volunteers, and it is recruiting now. Details can be found online at www.PeaceCorps.gov.
“If a young person from any community could go and spend time in a village some place in the world and come back to use everything they learned, we would be a better country as leaders,” Reynolds said. “We would definitely have a more worldly viewpoint that would make us more sensitive in our roles as leaders of the world.”
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