Assignment Macedonia: La Jollan Cal Mann joins the Peace Corps


Cal Mann is a La Jollan who has always embodied the philosophy of giving back to his community. But recently, he felt a greater urge tugging at him to leave La Jolla for a spell to help others around the world. That’s how he ended up in Macedonia, working for the Peace Corps.

Throughout his years in La Jolla, Mann was an outstanding member of the Rotary Club of La Jolla, serving as liaison to La Jolla High’s Interact Club, and also as director of youth services, as well as being a mentor with the Rotary Youth Leadership Awards for La Jolla High and Bishop’s School students. Besides Rotary and PTA, Mann also volunteered as the leader of the Tijuana Home Build Project and as field marshal at Surf Cup soccer tournaments for many years.

He and his wife, Natalie, are the parents of two La Jolla grads — Ryan, now an energy engineer in San Francisco, and Charlie, in his third year at UCLA studying statistics and sociology.

Throughout his life, he said, joining the Peace Corps was always in the back of his mind. “I was attracted by Peace Corps’ track record of working to make the world a better place,” Mann explained. “As a seeker of new challenges, Peace Corps presented me with the mother of all volunteer opportunities. Being in the 50-plus age group makes me among the eight percent who call themselves ‘older volunteers,’ who get the opportunity to work alongside some of America’s most inspiring young leaders.”

Mann applied for three different Peace Corps positions and was first accepted for the Macedonia assignment. He’s there for the long run — 27 months — but to him the timespan is not daunting.

“Time is funny,” Mann points out. “Looking forward, 27 months does seem like a long time. Looking back, the blurred speed of two years past is but a blink of an eye. If my first 40 days here are any indication, I’ll soon be home wondering if it was just a dream?”

Mann is in training until December. But once he’s launched as a volunteer, he’ll work with a Macedonian non-profit to expand opportunities for local youth, which might include job skills training, civic engagement and volunteer events. He said he couldn’t be happier about his assignment, since working with youth has always been his passion.

Mann is keeping a blog on his experiences, as well as taking lots of photos. In his blog, he describes being in Macedonia as reminiscent of his childhood in Washington; gathering and preserving local produce for winter use, using firewood for heating and cooking, living with chilly indoor temperatures and burning trash at home.

He also describes the simple customs of Macedonian natives. “Shoes are removed when entering a home, clothes are air-dried (electricity is very expensive), people keep neat homes and they actively maintain good relationships with their neighbors.”

Mann writes that one of the biggest surprises is how beautiful the country is, and how it remains undiscovered by most Americans: “The topography is gentle rolling hills with flat and terraced farmland. In the distance, the higher hills are a hint of the country’s steeper mountain terrain where snow is now falling.”

Mann is experiencing his own steep climb when it comes to learning the language. “With over six hours of classes every weekday (plus homework!), I am humbled on a regular basis,” he jokes, “I can currently converse effectively with one-year-old children.”

He said he hopes to become fluent in the language before he returns to the States, and notes that Macedonian is closely related to the Bulgarian, Serbian and Russian languages.

He also wants to return with a deep sense of knowing another country and its people. For him, this trip isn’t just about traveling to a new geographical area. It’s about personal growth that brings him well out of his comfort zone. “The Peace Corps program is an incredible American gift to the world,” he declares.

Mann encourages anyone to explore the many volunteer opportunities offered by Peace Corps. All of them require three months of training, and volunteers receive a living allowance that is similar to what the locals earn in a particular community. Applications are open to anyone over age 18. “The Peace Corps is extremely well run ... the goodwill it fosters abroad and the enlightened perspective it brings home are well worth the tiny bit of State Department budget it receives.”

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Did you know?

Macedonia is a landlocked Balkan nation of mountains, lakes and ancient towns with Ottoman and European architecture. The capital, Skopje, is known for its sprawling Old Bazaar quarter and historic buildings turned museums, including the National Gallery of Macedonia, housed in a 15th-century Turkish bath complex. The southern city Ohrid, on a lake of the same name, has a medieval townscape and hilltop castle. — wikipedia