U.S. Volunteer Packs a High Profile

Everything was set for the International Women's Day event in Ryazan last year. More than 500 women from the region were scheduled to display their arts and handicrafts.


But when Jo Ann Byrne, a Peace Corps volunteer who helped set up the event, received a call from another organizer telling her the money to pay for it had disappeared, she was shattered.


"I was so devastated because nearly 500 people were participating in the event and all the invitations had been sent out," Byrne said.


Byrne, however, was eventually able to get the regional administration to pay for the event, which proved to be a huge success.


"It was teamwork," she said. "To this day it's touching when I run into one of those women on the street and we remember how we made such an impossible idea into reality. This event gave me a reputation within the city."


Despite, or even because of, such challenges, Byrne, 26, has become one of the most visible figures in this small city three hours outside Moscow. Everyone from business leaders to city and regional administration officials contacts her on a regular basis for information or advice.


Byrne, who joined the Peace Corps two years ago, has helped dozens of Ryazan residents get what they need -- whether it's a business contact, a grant application or computer training. With her warm smile and bubbly personality, she has become a popular figure among residents, regularly working far into the night to perform tasks like helping a neighbor fill out an application for an internship program in the United States.


"Even if they don't get accepted, they'll know an American took the time to fill out an application," she said.


In addition to providing training and consulting at the Ryazan Analytical Information Center, a clearinghouse for business information that she helped set up, Byrne has worked with the foreign economics committee of the regional administration and with local businesses.


But Byrne's work has been especially appreciated by the city administration, which has given her funds and office space to create a web site on the Internet for Ryazan.


She has also worked with the city finance department to help develop a plan to help forecast tax revenue and has helped send the chief of the finance department to the United States on an international visitors' program sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. "It's great to see people come back with new and enlightened ideas," she said. "It's like they're changed people."


Byrne, who speaks six languages, including Latvian, first came to Russia in 1991 to study in Riga. Following a stint in her native Kansas working for a manufacturing company in the international sales and marketing department, she joined the Peace Corps in 1995.


She was with the third group of volunteers the agency sent to work in Russia. "In the beginning I probably could have cursed our whole program and what I was here to do," she said. "However, after a year into my service I realized what a blessing my site was. The site was totally ambiguous, and it was up to me to use my resourcefulness and create it."


Her presence in Ryazan has been felt by many of its residents.


She helped a local artist and gallery owner raise $1,000 from local businesses so she could attend a two-week training program on art therapy. She also teaches a Fundamentals of Business course at the local university and has taken the class on a field trip to Moscow to see a trade show and visit Western businesses.


She has found, however, that working on economic development in a region filled with people who are not receiving their salaries or pensions can be a difficult experience.


When she went to empty her wastebasket in her apartment building one day, a pensioner scolded her about the "valuable" paper she was throwing away.


"She said, 'Come to my apartment before you throw out the trash,'" Byrne said. "That's when it really hits home."