How a young man's initiative helped save a village

  • 2001-08-02
  • Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - While life in Lithuania's urban centers continues to improve with increasing levels of foreign investment and modernization projects, life in rural communities is, at best, stagnant. The young continue to flock to the cities in search of work and "new economy" skills, leave behind older relatives and parents who, in many cases, survive on subsistence farming, government handouts and seasonal work.

Enter 22-year-old Edinburgh, Scotland native Alex Gibb. Gibb first came to Lithuania to teach English for one term in the small town of Rokiskes. When his stint was over, he decided to try to promote change at a local level, and at the same time give British people a chance to participate in a cultural exchange and skills development program.

Gibb chose the tiny hamlet of Zagare, north of Siauliai and close to the Latvian border, for his project, which he called Lithuania Link. Living conditions in the town of 2,500 people, who have an average age of 55, are bleak. Officially, unemployment is at 30 percent, and this, Gibb said, reflects only those who have bothered registering for the meager handouts offered by the labor exchange.

Only 40 percent of Zagare residents have indoor plumbing and 60 percent have electricity. "The worst thing about the town is the Seitai River that runs through the town," said Gibb. "It stinks and contains human effluent, yet people use the water for doing their laundry. Zagare is in desperate need of a waste water treatment plant."

Lithuania Link brought 10 British volunteers, most in their early 20s, to Zagare to teach environmental awareness and community self-help. The team did more than just lecture; members rolled up their shirtsleeves and got down to work to improve some of the physical aspects of the town.

They renovated a large room in the local children's hospice, cleaned and landscaped an empty lot to make a British-Lithuanian friendship park and built extensive erosion defenses on nearby Zvilgaitis Hill, which was silting the river.

The group also participated in a project to remove garbage from the banks of the river. "We cleaned up a derelict children's playground including the sand pit," said Gibb. "The kids were hovering around in anticipation so they could begin playing in it."

The older people unfortunately have a more defeatist and somewhat suspicious attitude, which according to Gibb "shows in their faces and body language." The British team tried to get local residents to help them in their work, but found that there was a lack of initiative.

"Many in the older generation didn't understand what was in it for us, or even why we were there. But what was really rewarding was that the young people did respond, and it was great that they could get past the old attitudes as they're not bogged down by the past," he said.

But the municipality did show its approval. "We made good friends with them. They promised to come back again, and we're waiting for them," said Stase Edukiene, a local government representative.

Gibb's budget for Lithuania Link was a scant $10,000 that he received through the Leonardo da Vinci Fund. Most of the money went toward covering the volunteers' transportation costs from the U.K. Participants stayed with host families and in a school dormitory.

Gibb believes that over time this deprived, forgotten place will rebound. "Zagare received its town charter 803 years ago. It's actually one of the oldest towns in Lithuania," he said. In the 1920s Zagare had a population of 15,000 and was an important market town with a direct road link to Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad). Gibb thinks the town's setting makes it a potential location for wilderness tourism because it is located in the isolated Zagare Regional Park and is surrounded by a large area of pristine forests, lakes and rivers.