Theodorus and Olga Ruys, Co-Directors English Cultural Center
In the winter of 1988 we came to Brest, Belarus, to visit the uncle of Olga. Olga was born in Chicago, but her parents came from this area, which was then Poland; her father from Grondo in 1910, and her mother from Brest in 1929.
We returned in 1990 and 1991 to give lectures in Brest. At that time we discovered that many individuals wanted to learn English, but that there were no English books available. A survey of the five largest bookstores in Brest showed that there were many books in German, a fair number in French, but only three children's books in English.
We mailed several mail bags to a professor of English in Brest which took one and one half years to arrive and which finally ended up in the cupboard of the professor, behind lock and key.
At that point we decided to retire early and bring our own substantial library. Because of the problems with shipments, we decided to ship our books via Rotterdam, in the Netherlands; bought a van and trailer and drove through Germany and Poland to Belarus. We arrived in August of 1992 and went straight to City Hall. After much bureaucratic stagnation, we found a newly elected delegate to the City Government, who was also a professor at the Polytech Institute, willing to help and we opened the first English Cultural Center in Brest. It was dedicated on January 22, 1993.
We wanted to have the books we donated available to a broad spectrum of citizens, so we decided to start an independent English Center, for reading and discussions. The books were on many subjects. The city decided that the name English Center was too political, so it was called the English Cultural Center. We told the City that this was a Joint Venture, a term they had just become acquainted with, and that we would provide the books and the City should provide the space, utilities, etc.
We appointed a Board of Directors, made up of volunteers, in order to keep the Center independent of institutions, vested interests and to make the books accessible to all citizens. We also needed help with the selection of needed book titles. Board Members represented: higher education, elementary education, the business community, the library management, an elected official, the city and ourselves.
After the initial load of books, twelve additional trips to Rotterdam brought the total number of books to approximately 20,000 volumes: 12,000 of our own, many from friends and the local school district, and the remainder from the Rotary in our home town. At the end of the first year it was by far the largest English language library in the country.
At that point other cities became interested in receiving books. We visited the mayors of the provincial capitals of Belarus, a total of six, including the country capital over a three-year period and set up English Cultural Centers in Grodno, Vitebsk, Mogelov and Gomel besides Brest. Minsk received enough help from various embassies to be interested in another Center.
Somewhere during this time we were informed of book donation organizations in the USA. We wrote all of them. Two responded in a positive way: the International Book Bank in Baltimore and the Sabre Foundation in Cambridge. In May of 1995 the first container of 20,000 volumes arrived from IBB in Brest. These were distributed to 62 institutions in 14 cities all over Belarus.
About the same time we received about 40 boxes of books from Sabre which were shipped to the Humanitarian University in Minsk, and we are scheduled to receive a shipment, also from the Sabre Foundation, of 20,000 volumes in mid-November.
Our reasoning, to do this in memory of deceased parents, was acceptable to the authorities.
First of all we made it a policy to go to the highest official we could reach to explain what we wanted to do. If one talks to a lower official first, the higher feels ignored and will not cooperate. At the same time we aimed for independence, by appointing a Board of Directors representing the users, (see above).
This also meets the requirements of the IRS, which stipulates that the books donated by publishers must go to needy individuals, invalids or children. The English Cultural Centers are the custodians of these books for the benefit of those mentioned.
Donated books were not put on shelves until they were properly catalogued.
In conclusion, we should note that the meeting in Budapest was of great help, to discuss experiences, problems and share ideas.
As always, thank you for ourselves and the people of Belarus. We will inform you promptly when your shipment arrives.