Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 7

Some people seem to be able to do everything. Raimondas Sirgedas - Raimis, for short - is one of those people.

That's him playing the accordion a couple of weeks ago. He's pretty good. At his Rotary club's Presidents Night celebration, when he turned his gavel over to his vice president, he grabbed the accordion from a member of the band and serenaded us we were leaving.

He can speak English pretty well, and when he visited us in May 2007, he gave a long and moving speech to the Washington Rotary Club. He can speak Russian, too, not just from being forced to learn it in school, but from being forced to serve in the Soviet army. And he can speak a little Latvian, the native language of his wife, Daiga. The couple have two teenagers, who seem as gregarious as their parents.

He is a businessman and entrepreneur, having started a retail computer business shortly after Lithuania's independence. He now owns one-third interest in the local newspaper.

And he is an organic farmer, growing peas, beans and grains on a 400-acre farm without the use of pesticides. He is somewhat discouraged, though, by the lack of interest in organic produce. He says the buyers of his grain don't market it as organic but simply mix it with other grains.

Although Lithuania is still a poor country, there is wealth there now, and many new millionaires. You notice that familiar Third World juxtaposition of lavish manor houses surrounded by hovels. Raimis is campaigning to use that new money to fix old problems. His current interest is a pre-school in great need of playground equipment for children with physical and mental disabilities.

Raimis attended this school; the broken, rusted jungle-gyms and see-saws are the same ones on which he played as a child. His Rotary club is working to replace them. This pre-school is different now. Children with special needs, once confined to their own homes or institutions, are now taught and cared for along with "normal" kids - a fairly new concept in Eastern Europe. The school is well-staffed and in reasonably good physical condition. But the playground is another story.

Raimis will fix that. some people can do everything, and he's one of them.

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