Daily Herald
Peace Corp volunteers bring lessons, experiences from Malawi
By Andrew Steckling | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 5/13/2010 12:07 AM

Kirk Longstein always had a passion to serve his country, especially after years of influential support from his primary and secondary school teachers.

"We all have a sense of service, to help people in need," said the 27-year-old Sleepy Hollow resident. "Although we all show it in different variations, we all feel that way to some extent."

Longstein's sense of service took him on a two-year Peace Corps stint in Malawi, Africa. Back since April 12, he now is serving the Peace Corps mission in another way: promoting a better understanding of other cultures among his fellow Americans.

His first stop was former neighbor Cynthia Schuster and her fourth grade class at St. Joseph School in Elgin.

Longstein, along with friend and co-volunteer Allie Hoagland, 25, presented information about their service and shared their experiences Wednesday with Schuster's class as well as the fifth-grade students of teacher Donna Fay.

Schuster's class had been corresponding with Longstein since January 2009, sending him letters every two months.

"The letters really helped me transition back to the American life, since I've spent the last two years in Africa," Longstein said. "It was one of the hardest and most life-changing experiences, and having this buffer, this 'fan club', will really provide me an opportunity to share my experiences with others."

Using photos and memorabilia from the southeast African country, Longstein and Hoagland explained the differences in cultural lifestyles between that nation and the U.S., including food, clothing and occupational choices, as well as the roles both men and women play in day-to-day life.

Although separated by two different tribes while stationed in Africa, Longstein and Hoagland said they were able to meet up with one another and Schuster's son, Adam, during their service.

"We often joked how we were the only Chicago-based volunteers in that area, so we had to hang out," Hoagland said.

The two also highlighted the qualifications of joining the Peace Corps, and encouraged students to apply when they graduate from college.

"It will really help you develop a sense of pride in where you live, and can really help you learn who you truly are," Longstein said.

Janine Bolchazy, principal of St. Joseph's, also volunteered two years of her time formerly communist Slovakia, saying the experience was marvelous, something "money cannot buy."

"It's extremely important that our children, when they learn about ministry and service and volunteerism in our Catholic school, that they see people who have dedicated themselves for two years to help people who are less fortunate than we," she said. "It's marvelous."