Changing lives through education

DSCN4569I think this is a first for the Wishful Thinking Works blog, but my friend and former Peace Corps Volunteer, Katrina, and her friends are doing such good things in a country I consider my second home, I had to share their work with you. It’s a perfect Wishful Thinking Works kind-of story: They are making a difference, and it all began with a wish of a very special former teacher in Macedonia

Katrina and I have a lot in common, we both served in the United States Peace Corps in Macedonia; we each spent three months in the same amazing host village of Chaska, and we both have been involved in projects in Macedonia since our service ended. 

Here is the story of the Ethnic Turkish Educational and Cultural Foundation, which Katrina and others created to make positive difference in the lives of others. The words and photos are all theirs; more information can be found at their web site.


ETECFoundation grants provide impoverished ethnic Turkish and Roma children with the opportunity to go to school with books, school supplies, backpacks, shoes and support services.   ETECFoundation partners with K.U.D Kardeşlik, a Macedonian NGO, to provide scholarships to primary school children.”


“As a Peace Corps volunteer in Macedonia (2005-2007), I had the good fortune to meet a man with a vision for the children in his community, located in Strumica, DSCN4585Macedonia  Though my Macedonian was poor and his primary language was Turkish, this former teacher was able to communicate his desire to work toward his vision that every ethnic Turkish and Roma child that wanted to go to school, would be able to do so.  We shared a belief that Education is the cornerstone of peace.

In May 2007 K.U.D. Kardeşlik, a Macedonian NGO, under the Direction of Emin Eminov, created the Children to School project to target children most at risk for being unable to obtain an education: children who not only faced insurmountable economic barriers but also had only one parent or were without parents. In addition to the scholarship criteria, attendance and achievement standards were set for scholarship recipients.

For the balance of my service in Macedonia in 2007, I worked with K.U.D. Kardeşlik to obtain funding for “Children to School” through Peace Corps Partnership Program advise on organizational management to Director Eminov and the Board.  In the process we engaged the interest and support of other Peace Corps Volunteers also serving in Macedonia.  Most notably, a former school teacher working across the country in Debar, Gail Graor.  Gail visited Strumica and got hooked on the “Children to School” program and the commitment of Director Eminov.  Together we pledged to continue our service to at risk children and families in this community, through raising funds in the USA for our partner NGO, K.U.D. Kardeşlik.

In August, 2009 we obtained 501(c)(3) designation for ETECFoundation so that all contributions  are tax-deductible charitable donations.  We deeply appreciate your support of our mission to promote the advancement and education of the ethnically Turkish and Roma minorities in Macedonia.”

If you would like to get more involved, visit their web site . . .

“$788 will send a child to school for one year

$245 will buy lunch for one child for the school year

$35 will buy school supplies and a backpack for one child

$21 will buy a sturdy pair of shoes for one child”

Never, ever think that one person cannot make a difference.  And, remember when like-minded people work together mountains can be moved, lives can be changed, and the effects can last for generations!

Have a great week, and keep dreaming those dreams.

Learning to check your expectations with your luggage!

Chaska, Macedonia 2013 Mountain Road

An unplanned journey, and a day I will remember always – near Chaska, Macedonia.

I’m finishing-up my third Peace Corps assignment, and will be heading back to the States on Valentine’s Day – a sweet treat for sure. I served with the Peace Corps from 2006-2009 in the Republic of Macedonia, 3.5 months in the Republic of Georgia, 2011-2012, and I’m now finishing a 3.5 month assignment in Macedonia.

A big part of the joy I have experienced in my work here and in Georgia has to do with being open to exploring and understanding different cultures. So, earlier this week, when I opened my email and read an e-newsletter about “Cultural Intelligence”, I started thinking about what I’ve learned by living and traveling abroad and how those lessons have shaped my life.

My favorite line in the article is . . . “The last part of cultural intelligence relates to how you behave, and, in particular, how well you adapt when things don’t go according to plan.”

While living abroad I quickly learned that some of my richest and most rewarding moments were dependent on how well I adapted when things turned out differently than I expected, which led to an even more valuable lesson – to be truly happy abroad – it’s best to check your expectations with your luggage!

And, guess what? The amazing part of that lesson is it works just as well at home as it does abroad! Letting go of your expectations, is one of the keys to being truly happy – anywhere, anytime. When we let go of what we expect to happen and how we expect others to act and react, the happier and more fulfilling our lives become.

Expectations take-up a great deal of room in our hearts and in our heads and require loads of effort to maintain, which leaves very little space and energy for understanding, communication,  growth, and happiness.

Think about it.

  • How many times a day do you get frustrated with the actions or non-actions of yourself or others?
  • How many times in your life have you look backward or forward through a very narrow lens, shaped almost entirely by your or other’s expectations, and felt embarrassed, sad or stressed?
  • Wouldn’t it be nice to leave all that behind?

Why not give yourself a special gift this Valentine’s Day and lessen your expectations for yourself and others (past, present and future) and increase the likelihood that happiness will find a special place in your heart and grow to become the sweetest part of your life?

“Sreken pat” or happy journey, as they say to travelers in Macedonia, and may your happiest journey be your life.

Peace Corps Up Close and Personal – III

Peace Corps turned 50 on March 1, 2011. During the past 50 years more than 200,000
Volunteers committed to spend 27 months abroad in a place very far from home
that they accepted, but didn’t choose.  
 Sound scary? It is. Sound adventurous? It is. Sound wonderful? It was.
To celebrate Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary and the personal commitment and courage of five of those Volunteers, each Wednesday in March I will share one of their stories.


What makes a successful 29-year-old Creative Director working at a Madison Avenue public relations firm and living in Manhattan decide to change her life by going into the Peace Corps? Dao Tran, who served in the Republic of Macedonia from 2006-2008 recently answered that and other questions about her service.

After climbing the corporate ladder, Dao decided to take a different path, which led her to the mountains of Macedonia.


1. Why did you join Peace Corps?

Joining the Peace Corps was always in the back of my mind, but immediately after college, it just wasn’t possible. After a few years working in a job where each night I was questioning the purpose of my work and what good I had done for society that day, I went to the Peace Corps website and began the application process. It is a decision I will never regret.

As a training project, Dao and another Volunteer orchestrated a village cleanup and Halloween party with the local school children in Chaska, 2006.


Dao created a very hands-on-dental hygiene activity as one of her secondary projects* with Romani children in Skopje.


Dao having fun on a field trip to the ancient ruins at Heraclea with Romani students from Skopje.


2. Favorite memory of living in Macedonia?

I have many great memories of living in Macedonia. One in particular was during training in the village of Chaska when some members of our training group went on an overnight hike with our language instructor, who was close to my age. It was fall and the leaves where changing. The view was spectacular, and we had fun learning and playing a Macedonian card game with the Macedonian hikers in the hostel where we all spent the night.

Hiking the mountains of Jakubitsa with fellow Peace Corps Trainees and our language instructor


3. Funniest memory?

I laughed a lot during my service. One memory that still gives me a chuckle was on another hiking trip when one of my best Peace Corps friends was under the weather, and the higher we climbed the worse she felt. We were taking a break along some rocks, and one of the Macedonians with us was sharing the history of the area. When I turned to look at my sick friend, she said, “You guys, I don’t feel . . .” and suddenly all I could see was projectile vomit. But instead of showing concern like good friends should we all burst out laughing. And we laughed even harder when the Macedonian just continued with his history lesson as if my poor friend hadn’t just recreated a scene from “The Exorcist.” It was one of those moments when the humor of the situation far outweighed the reality.

4. Best thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV)?

The freedom I felt when I left my old life behind for a brief period to do something I had dreamt of doing but didn’t think was possible because of life’s responsibilities.

5. The worst thing?

How much I missed family and friends and New York City. I lived in the capital city of Skopje, which was Macedonia’s largest and busiest city with about 600,000 people, but was much less diverse.

6. Best thing about Macedonia?

The mountains, the amazing landscape. Every time I went running, the view of the snow-capped mountains in the near distance was a constant reminder that I was living in a beautiful foreign country.

The mountains are visible everywhere in Macedonia.


And, where there are mountains, there are sheep.


7. Biggest surprise you experienced about yourself, Peace Corps or Macedonia?

I joined Peace Corps thinking that I would go to a foreign country to help people in need, to teach them . . . I wasn’t sure what? It turned out that Macedonians and my Peace Corps family taught me what school and New York City couldn’t.

When I worked in the corporate world, I was extremely uptight, pretty obsessive-compulsive, and wanted things done now, not later. My approach probably stemmed from my belief that I constantly needed to prove myself to my clients and coworkers. In Macedonia, I learned to chill and to relax a bit. Most importantly, I gained tremendous confidence in my abilities and skills.


Dao teaching a water conservation session at Boy’s Camp in the summer of 2007.


8. Have those changes been lasting?

Most definitely. Since returning from Peace Corps, I stopped worrying about other people’s perception of me, which has reduced my anxiety level by about 99.9 %.

Macedonia taught me to slow down and appreciate the little things in life. After leaving the Peace Corps I moved to a small town in Pennsylvania and became a nanny for my nephew, who was born while I was serving in Macedonia. This past summer his little brother was born, and I now get to spend my days with both of them.

I never imagined I’d enjoy being a nanny as much as I do, and can’t fathom the idea of going back into an office environment. While my days are just as fast-paced and sometimes more stressful than when I was Creative Director, I find my current job more meaningful and rewarding.

9. What did you miss most about the States?

Being anonymous. There are not many Asians in Macedonia so I got lots of stares and unwanted attention.

10. Any memorable readjustment issues upon your return to States? If so, what stood out?

For months, every time I walked into a store in the States, I was in awe of how much we have and how much we believe we need. Whenever I picked up an item for purchase, I asked myself, “is this what I need or is it what I want?” If the answer is that it is what I need, it goes into the basket, otherwise, it goes back on the shelf.

11. Was there a defining moment when you realized you were making a difference by being in the Peace Corps?

Throughout my service, there were a few low periods when I felt I wasn’t making any difference. But looking back, I realize it was mostly my overly ambitious dreams of making the world a happier place. Now I understand that as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the changes I made were gradual and though too small to notice at times, I did, overall, have a positive impact in the community.

As a community development volunteer, my primary job was with Open the Windows, Отворете ги прозорците, a non-profit organization that worked to improve the lives of people with disabilities through accessible and assistive technology. One of the last projects I helped develop and received funding for was creating individual anthologies called “My Life, My Dreams.” The anthology included an autobiography, creative writings, drawings, family pictures and a family tree – all done on adaptive computers. The aims of the project were to help users of our computer center develop their writing skills and, more importantly, to encourage them to envision their life and future beyond the confinement of their disabilities. My organization had a ceremony to present the users and their parents the completed magazine. After the ceremony a parent of a 7-year-old boy with multiple sclerosis approached me and thanked me for writing the grant to fund the project. She said because of the magazine, she learned what made her son feel happy and sad. In that moment, I felt I had made a difference.

Dao often used her graphic and public relations expertise to create press kits and promotional materials for her Macedonian NGO, "Open the Windows".


12. Did you make friendships that lasted beyond Peace Corps?

Absolutely! I never thought I would meet and connect with so many amazing people, both American and Macedonian.

Enjoying a night out with Macedonian and American friends.

Dao with her host mother at Thanksgiving, 2006. Peace Corps Macedonia hosted Thanksgiving dinner for about 200 American and Macedonian folks each year.

The neighbors in Chaska pealing roasted red peppers to make avjar, a national dish.

Friendly Notes:

Dao and I served together in Peace Corps Macedonia. There were six of us living in the rural village of Chaska during our training. We met each morning for four hours of language class. After class we each headed back to our respective Macedonian homes where we were expected for lunch and where we were, for the most part, treated like guests.

Dao lived the furthest from school and each morning and afternoon walked down a long dusty and sometimes muddy road. (It has since been paved.) Both of Dao’s “host parents” worked and her teenage host sisters were at school, so Dao was usually walking into an empty house. Within a few weeks, we were referring to her as a latch-key kid and jokingly as Cinderella because she insisted on doing her own laundry and helping with the housework and cooking. Dao and her family bonded quickly; she loved living with them, “They were the best host family any volunteer could have asked for.”

Since she has been back, Dao’s love of cooking and all things natural led her to create her website, The Dao of Cooking, which includes wonderful recipes and much more.


Her two adorable and interesting bosses make life much more rewarding. 




And, her new location is far from the hectic lifestyle she once knew.


Getting your bearings . . .  

Macedonia is north of Greece in Southeastern Europe


*All PCVs, who pass their three-month in-country training, are assigned to a primary job. PC also requires PCVs to create a secondary project within their community during their 24-month assignment. Most PCVs develop more than one “secondary” project, and embrace and enjoy the opportunity the projects present.


Macedonia is nestled in Southeastern Europe.

  I spent three wonderful years in the ancient, beautiful, mountainous country of Macedonia. I experienced amazing adventures of the heart and soul while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bitola, Macedonia’s second largest city, just 10 miles north of Greece. Thoughts of the people, the land, the food, and the wine are always with me. I am planning to return this year, and each after, with a few people, who are interested in the trip of a lifetime. We will spend time exploring mountains, villages and vineyards. I will be sharing my favorite places and people with them, and they will have lots of free time to create their own special moments and memories. If you would like to explore what Macedonia and a visit there has to offer you, please send me an email and I will let you know our plans. In 2011, I plan to offer week-long Wishful Thinking Works retreats in a rural village – the perfect place to get away from it all, and rediscover yourself. 

Vine-covered foothills of the Baba Mountains near Bitola, Macedonia.

Easy to see why I fell in love with this beautiful country, isn’t it?

From the hills near the village of Chaska, my first home in Macedonia.

This is where my “adoptive” Macedonian family lives, they were my Peace Corps host familyfor three months.

Bringing the flock in near the tiny village of Chaska.

Right after dawn and just before dusk, sheep are a common sight in the hills and mountains of Macedonia.

My home away from home in Dihovo, my favorite village in Macedonia.

This village near Bitola stole my heart.  This is the first B & B opened in Dihovo. I worked with the family, who are amazing!

The streets of Dihovo, Macedonia, my favorite village.

I love the houses and the streets.

Houses around the corner in Dihovo, Macedonia.

The colors and textures are so rich, and they way these homes hug the road always makes me wonder which came first!

Antique wagon at Villa Patrice, just like Ohio in the fall.

Villa Patrice was the second B & B to open in Dihovo.  Nevenka and Saso are so kind and generous, they named their B & B for me!

Pears from the tree at Villa Patrice in Dihovo, where my heart is.

The fresh fruit and vegetables in Macedonia are delicious.

Pears at night in Chaska, my first home in Macedonia. Photo courtesy of my wonderful friend, Malinda Antonik-Borgner.

Bear with me, I am a foodie and these photos touch my soul!

Cabbage, the lettuce of Macedonia.

Cabbage is eaten daily and even though lettuce is available, fresh cabbage soon became my salad of choice.  The cabbage is mild flavored, almost sweet, and, of course, has tons of vitamins! 

And, what you cannot pick, you can easily buy at the "pazzar" (market).

Tomatoes, cucumbers, green onions and white salty, sharp cheese cut into chunks and drizzled with light oil and vinegar with a sprinkling of salt and pepper easy and delicious Macedonian salad. 

Inexpensive, fresh ingredients for those perfect "salatas".

Mmm, mmm, good – the perfect combination. 
Ruby red, and oh so sweet.

About this time, I have to remind myself I am planning to walk home, hmm, maybe a taxi is in order.

Flowers in every market and every yard!

Always my last stop of the day.

For more photos of Macedonia, click here.

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