Rock Island retired teacher Kathleen Hesse is used to teaching on the other side of the border. Every morning for the past 39 years, Ms. Hesse has buckled into her car and driven from her home to Davenport's Jefferson Elementary School.
This summer Ms. Hesse took her daily routine to an extreme -- she hopped international lines and spent two weeks teaching third graders in rural northeastern Poland as part of a non-profit program called Global Volunteers.
``Global Volunteers gave me the chance to combine my two great passions,'' said Ms. Hesse. ``Teaching and travel.'' The Minnesota-based program sends American volunteers to foreign countries to participate in short-term overseas community-development projects. Volunteers spokesperson Sarah Barker says these transnational projects help ``promote global peace and understanding between diverse cultures and help foster meaningful dialogue between the foreign communities and their American volunteers.''
Even though Ms. Hesse speaks little Polish -- and the residents of her foster village (Naviste) little English -- she says she managed to learn a great deal about Polish culture. ``They are a people with a tremendous strength of spirit,'' said Ms. Hesse. ``The Polish have struggled through so many invasions -- first the Germans and then the Russians -- and survived.''
Ms. Hesse recounted the story a Naviste elder told her about the Russian occupation of northeastern Poland in the early 1950s. Naviste, located roughly 70 miles south of the Russian border, was one of the provinces subjected to the occupation. ``This man was forced to dig graves in one of Stalin's work camps. They fed him on a diet of chicken feed and water. But he managed to escape -- he ran 20 kilometers to a nearby forest and hid. And 45 years later, he's alive to tell his story,'' said Ms. Hesse. ``That's courage.''
Some might say Ms. Hesse also displayed courage when she decided to venture into a tiny farming village in rural Poland without a translator. ``We did a lot of charades,'' said Ms. Hesse of her interactions with the school principal, the other teachers and Naviste villagers -- none of whom spoke English. And in the classroom, Ms. Hesse combined charades and song to help her 8-year-old girls learn English. ``The melody, rhyming and rhythm of the songs seems to really help them remember the words,'' says Ms. Hesse. ``We sang every song in the book -- from `Row, Row, Row Your Boat' to `Twinkle Little Star.' We even tried out a few rap songs.
``The children were very eager to learn,'' Ms. Hesse continued. ``Their parents have told them that if they learn English they are bound to get a good job.'' For Naviste's children, as for children in struggling nations across the world, English is the key to higher salary jobs, says Ms. Barker. Most of the international communities Global Volunteers works with request English teachers. ``English has become the language of commerce,'' says Ms. Barker. ``Knowing English greatly increases the children's chances of moving out of poverty.''
And in Naviste, a struggling farming community, any step up helps. Ms. Hesse said the small, rural town looks like the Quad-Cities of 100 years ago.
Cars share the town's dirt roads with bicyclists, squawking chickens, and horse-drawn carts. Dairy cows are staked along the highway. And farmers can be seen heading out to their plots of land with their only tool -- the plow.
``Watching the farmers there was like watching the past,'' said Ms. Hesse. ``They go out to the fields on their wagons, hitch up the plow to their horse, work all afternoon and then return home at night in their wagon. It's a very simple life.''
The village classroom was just as simple said Ms. Hesse. ``The classrooms had no computers -- just the rows of desks and the large chalkboard up front. And the classroom desks and chairs were in bad shape.'' Despite the village's scarcity, Ms. Hesse said the townspeople were the most generous people she has ever met. ``They were such giving people,'' she said. ``They really made me feel a part of the community. They acted like they had known me their whole life.''
Since Hesse has returned from her trip she has stayed in touch with her Naviste students. And she hopes to return to the small town someday in the future. As for next summer, she is already busy planning: she will be teaching English again with Global Volunteers, but this time in Italy or Spain. ``I mean to settle down and relax,'' says Ms. Hesse. ``But I can't think of a better way to spend my retirement.''