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Kazakhstan Americorps

Empowerment of At-Risk Children is This Volunteer's Mission.

When Suzanne Scholten graduated from college, she was all set to find a great job in marketing. It didn't take her long to realize that the business world wouldn't be such a good fit.

Too much structure. Sitting in an office all day. No free time to do what she loves best -- helping others.

That's when she sat down at the computer and typed in www.peacecorps.gov. What came up on the screen would change her vision for her life. It would require that she go to another country and learn another language. But it would be a unique way to connect work with her passion to volunteer.

She also had learned about Americorps and decided to begin there.

"I thought I'd start out in this country first and see how I could help people in education through a non-government organization," said Scholten who spent one year in the VISTA program.

A month after graduation, she was in Montana working with an organization called Partnership for Youth. She found conditions to be quite poor.

"Many people hung out in bars all day, the schools were poor and the majority of people were on food stamps. The number of students in college was low," she said.

"I saw how society is so different in different places. I lived on food stamps too, and now I understand more about our government's social programs," she added.

In that at-risk community, Scholten helped create a skateboarding park, a program for extra help for students outside school hours and adult education for parents. Also through her involvement, the library expanded its hours.

"It was community development -- we were trying to get everyone involved in the life of the community," said the volunteer who is home on break from her work with the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, one of the republics of the former Soviet Union.

The rural Sioux City woman got a taste of what it means to connect working with her desire to empower people to improve their lives. And then it was time to travel and see if she could work the same formula in another country

She found becoming a Peace Corps volunteer a lengthy and comprehensive process. After a period of nine months of medical checks, phone interviews, reference checks and even FBI checks, she received her assignment.

Kazakhstan. Famous for chocolate, vodka, beer and oil. The country where she would spend 23 months has 17 million people and is five times the size of Texas. It borders on China, Russia and the Caspian Sea. It's cold there, about 10 below zero right now. But the people are warm and hospitable with a constant invitation to tea.

Scholten spent three months learning the language and the culture with a host family in the city of Almaty. Her first assignment was training teachers in Uralsk to teach students about prevention of HIV and AIDS.

After four months, she began working in an orphanage in Uralsk with an NGO called Union of Women. Through her work with the children (who go to school on the premises), she is working to empower others who are less fortunate.

The Zhas Dauren orphanage is a mile and a half outside the city. The children, ages 7 to 18, are orphans in the sense that their parents cannot afford to take care of them. In Kazakhstan, there is no welfare system to help struggling families. If a child has been visited within six months by a parent, he or she is not adoptable.

With Scholten there to set up a program to find sponsoring families in America, it was a win-win situation. Those who were preparing to leave the orphanage had a better chance of attending college and taking care of themselves and the American volunteer had a big family to keep her happy while she is away from her own.

She feels she has lots of brothers and sisters in the orphanage. They hang out together while she teaches them skills like cooking and budgeting their money. She also helps them find jobs and apartments.

The volunteer is particularly close to one student. "Sholpan is like my sister because I care about her and we connected when we first met. She knows English, is very driven and has spent her whole life there and never had anyone. She translates for me when I go to other orphanages. I want to help her reach her goal to be an interpreter, Scholten said. "We are working on a scholarship for her to study in a university in the United States."

Yet she has a deep attachment to all of the children. "I think they are all beautiful. They call out 'Suzannah!' when they see me. They want to tell me stories and give me hugs. They look at my nails and touch my hair. They need my attention."

This attachment drives Scholten to help as many of the close to 300 orphans as possible. Her main goal is for each student upon leaving the orphanage to attend college, find good living quarters, use the money in their personal accounts wisely and in general get along well as they live outside the orphanage and family to support them.

So far, through working with an adoption agency in Georgia called World Partners. 150 American families are in the data base. Out of the $30, each pays, five goes to support a project manager who Scholten hopes can manage the program after she leaves in May.

"Sholpan has a beautiful sponsor mom. The families make connections -- they write letters and give support. Her sponsor mom has been to Kazakhstan before and will come again at Christmas," she explains.

"Like this mom, most American sponsors have already adopted a child from Kazakhstan, and this program also helps adopted children stay connected with their culture," said Scholten who helped set up a Web site for the orphanage.

"When the sponsor program goes through, it will keep changing the lives of the children and the community. It's priceless to see these children get the help and the hope they need to make it own their own," she said.

Scholten also is involved in the Foster Care Program in which children in the orphanage actually live with family members during the summer. The families are paid a small amount. Children are exposed to life outside the orphanage as they go to cafes, picnics in the park, the movie theater and out for ice cream.

The young volunteer has enjoyed her time overseas, but when her term ends in May, she'll return to the United States.

"The experience has made me appreciate America more. I am excited to assist in these types of programs in the states and to learn more about foster care here," said Scholten who hopes to get into an international adoption agency.

"I want to keep traveling, and I want to be able to tell parents what they are getting into when they adopt and help them embrace the culture the child is from."

This article was written by Carole Johnston for the Sioux City Journal


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