TETOVO, Republic of Macedonia – In an ancient, but hidden-away corner of southeastern Europe, Omak resident David Nash-Mendez has started what he hopes will be a transformative community reconstruction project.
As a volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps, Nash-Mendez has worked with Tetovo residents to form a coalition of 16 non-profit organizations to reconstruct a public sports complex that has seen little attention since Macedonia separated from Yugoslavia in 1991.
The coalition had a kick-off event June 1, when volunteers and community members helped collect more than 30 bags of litter from the park.
Plans call for more clean-up efforts, a music festival to focus community attention on the park and a fundraising campaign to replace failing sports equipment.
Being a community volunteer is nothing new for Nash-Mendez, 25.
Growing up in Omak, he was an active member of Boy Scouts Troop No. 60, president of the Omak High School Key Club and a Kiwanis Club member. He graduated from Omak High School in 2007.
He attended University of Washington, but said he considers himself “an Omakian at heart.”
He is a student in UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs and is participating in the Peace Corps masters international program in which master’s candidates “can sharpen the skills learnt in the classroom with real world experience in the Peace Corps.”
Nash-Mendez said he has committed himself to a career as a public servant, and “the Peace Corps seemed like a good place to start serving.”
The Peace Corps was established by John F. Kennedy in 1961. More than 215,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 139 different countries.
Nash-Mendez said Peace Corps volunteers work at the grass roots level with local governments, schools, communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs “to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development.”
Volunteers serve for a total of 27 months; they spend 3 months in intensive language, technical and cultural training before moving to the sites where they will live and work for the next two years.
Nash-Mendez is a second-generation Peace Corps volunteer. His dad, Paul Nash, did a stint after graduating from college in 1982.
“There weren’t many jobs available back then. I wanted to work in forestry,” Nash said. He also was told being a Peace Corps veteran would be a good stepping-stone into a federal government job.
He went to work for the U.S. Forest Service after serving in the Peace Corps in Paraguay, his wife’s native country.
“We’re proud of him,” Nash said. “It’s a neat place to pick up some unique skill sets.”
Nancy Nash-Mendez is equally enthusiastic about her son’s Peace Corps service.
“To have him follow in the footsteps of his father – that is our legacy to the community and a dream come true,” she said.
Their other son, Daniel, is a student at Washington State University.
David Nash-Mendez arrived in Macedonia last September and swore in as a volunteer on Nov. 29, 2013. He lives in Tetovo in northwestern Macedonia, a dozen miles from the border with Kosovo.
Tetovo was the center of a 2001 insurgency from ethnic Albanian forces and still suffers from ethnic tensions, he said. Although ethnic Albanians comprise roughly one-fifth of Macedonia’s residents, more than 80 percent of Tetovo’s residents are Albanians, with the remainder being ethnic Macedonian or Roma.
Since local ethnic Albanians are predominately Muslim and ethnic Macedonians are predominately Eastern Orthodox, much of Nash-Mendez’s work as a community development volunteer involves trying to bridge ethnic and religious differences.
“The beauty of the Sport Center project is that it helps move the conversation past ethnic or religious issues: Sports and athletics help us transcend our differences” Nash-Mendez said of his project. “Our coalition is comprised of Roma, Albanians, Macedonians, youth organizations, women’s organizations, ecological organizations — all unified by sport for the good of the community.”
Working with the two local organizations to which he is assigned, Nash-Mendez said he is using the Sports Center project as a way to train his counterparts and co-workers in coalition building, stakeholder mapping, and project design and management.
One of his organizations, the Youth Alliance of Tetovo, focuses primarily on good governance and transparency efforts within the Republic of Macedonia, while the other, the Macedonian Croatian Association, aims to share Croatian culture and goodwill with the community of Tetovo.