By Connie Denney
Times were different then—different on a personal and on a global scale. Ursula Behling lived on the West side of the wall dividing Germany. When she visited family in East Germany, it was so very sad to see how controlled lives were, how limited the supply of food.
At that time she was married with kids. But years later when her personal responsibilities were different, she sought out the way to put legs on her understanding of human suffering and desire to do something about it. The path led to the Peace Corps.
Life has carried Ursula from East Prussia, where she was born, to Germany at the age of one year, then to a number of states in this country. There are many stories worth the telling along the way. Being near her daughter had much to do with Ursula’s making her home in Erwin, where we sat a spell and I saw the scrapbook of pictures and mementos from her service in the Peace Corps, which began in 1997.
“My dream was always to go to a third world country and help, and see for myself what it is like.” She was thinking Africa—but the Peace Corps assignment took her to Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union. She remembers arriving there in January, when the river was frozen. Availability of heat was controlled, turned on in December and off on April 21. By May it was a bit warmer, but she still needed a coat. Among the many things not to be taken for granted were hot water showers and toilet paper.
Work assignments resulted from matching needs to skill sets. Her 30 years of experience in business management led to work in the resource center for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Kiev, the capital city. Her duties varied but included teaching general office skills, pubic relations, fundraising.
Her two-year stint was cut short, when her own health problems resulted in her return to this country after eight months. It was long enough, though, for her to absorb an appreciation for the challenge of learning to navigate a large foreign city in a country in transition, and for the graciousness of a struggling people. She values the cultural exchange, feels she learned more than she taught.
As for the Peace Corps, Ursula points out that getting in is not a given. She traveled to Washington, D.C., to pursue her interest. Health screenings and extensive training including learning the language of the country one will serve are among requirements.
Would she recommend it to others? “If you are a person afraid of your own shadow, or can’t follow directions, don’t go” she cautions. On the other hand, “I always would say if you can learn something, go do it. “You learn to be independent, be responsible and feel good for what you did.” She noted that there were students, who could get college credit for their service, in her group, along with other ages ranging into the 70s. Housing was furnished, along with a small amount to live on and a bit of money in the bank back home.
Being thankful is high on Ursula’s list, as she reflects on her own experience, noting what a wonderful country in which we live. She came here by choice in 1965, went through the Ellis Island experience as an immigrant and committed herself to the serious business of naturalization to become a citizen of the United States.
She knows whereof she speaks.