Local couple aiding Peace Corps efforts in Moldova

March 7, 2014

By Neil Pierson

New: March 7, 12:14 p.m.

More than 18 months after arriving in Moldova, Glenn and Ronda Olson are seeing signs that Europe’s poorest country is starting to turn things around.

The Olsons, who have been married 39 years and have lived in Sammamish since 1987, are volunteers with the Peace Corps, a U.S. government-led humanitarian group that has more than 7,200 workers in 65 countries.

On a windy, snowy February evening in Cimislia (chur-MEECH-lee-uh), a city of about 15,000 near the country’s southern border with Ukraine, the Olsons took time from their busy lives to speak on Skype.

They often use the video phone service to connect with others around the world, including their son Kelby in Sammamish, their daughter Tami in Japan, and their four grandchildren.

The Olsons have been in Moldova since June 2012. Glenn works with a regional development agency that seeks to improve the local economy, while Ronda teaches health education in a school for grades 5-12.

Possibly the toughest hurdle to their work is the language barrier. Moldovans often speak in a mixture of Russian and Romanian, and the Olsons weren’t familiar with either tongue before their arrival. The Peace Corps pays for language lessons, something they spend four to eight hours per day studying.

Glenn came to Moldova two weeks before Ronda, and they lived apart for 10 weeks with host families in different villages.

“My host family knew zero English,” Glenn said, “so it was hands gesturing, and finally she started going to the neighbors to find somebody to help.”

The Moldovan climate and landscape reminds the Olsons of eastern Washington – lots of farmland and rolling hills.

The country is about one-quarter the size of Iowa, and Cimislia is about 90 minutes south of the capital, Chisinau (KEY-shun-aw).

Moldova is one of the breakaway republics from the former Soviet Union. The nation’s infrastructure is spotty at best, the Olsons explained. Internet and phone systems are quite good, but sewers and roads are often in terrible shape.

Glenn’s work with the regional development agency has had its challenges because locals are stuck in a “Soviet mentality” where managers don’t make independent decisions.

Businesses run on nepotistic principles, and it’s not what you know, but who you know, that makes things happen.

“I struggle every day with just getting them to conceive of different ideas and possibilities,” Glenn said.

For Ronda, following the Peace Corps’ mission of sustainable practices is one of her primary tasks. In order to create a safer, healthier Moldova, getting into the schools is vital. Many people need help understanding things such as personal hygiene, HIV/AIDS, obesity and tuberculosis.

“One of the reasons we have health education is the cost of health care is pretty high everywhere,” Ronda said, “and it’s so people can become more knowledgeable of life skills, and that starts with the kids in the schools.”

While their primary projects require time apart, the Olsons have also been working together on some secondary tasks.

The couple helped raise thousands of dollars to build a new restroom at Cimislia’s first school, a project that is currently under construction. Ronda said the current facility – a 60-meter walk from the main building, with concrete walls covered with feces and trash – is deplorable.

“It was foul,” she said. “The stench was enough to knock you out. It was basically a pit latrine, but nothing like when you go camping.”

Last February, Cimislia began using new trash collection methods that Glenn was partially responsible for setting up. Through a grant, the region bought eight dump trucks, and the Peace Corps helped build more than 100 platforms with separate bins for trash and plastics. Eventually, the goal is to include paper and glass in the recycling process.

The Olsons are scheduled to return to the U.S. in July. While the third-world conditions can be heartbreaking, they said, there have been many positives they’ve taken from their time in Moldova.

“We’ve met so many generous, giving individuals,” Ronda said. “It’s the poorest country in Europe, and there are some folks where you can see they have more than others, but the people here just give and give.”

The food has been another highlight – produce like carrots and potatoes are incredibly delicious because of the country’s “dense soil,” Glenn explained.

Many homes are surrounded by fruit trees, and everyone feasts on berries, apples, pears, peaches and honey during the summer.

When Glenn brings food to his office, he shares it with his co-workers, and they do the same.

“It’s a different mentality, and it’s been heartwarming to experience,” he said.

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