When Tucson residents Brent and Deeporn Beardsley walked away in their 60s from long-time jobs at IBM to join the Peace Corps, they thought they were saying goodbye to software development projects.
Instead, they ended up applying their programming and project development skills to assist schools across the Republic of Moldova. As they now wrap up their two years as volunteers in the east European nation, their free class-scheduling program is spreading rapidly with the active support of the country’s education ministry.
Class scheduling is much more complicated in Moldova than in the United States, where students generally take courses every day for a semester or a year — English first period, biology second period and so forth. In Moldova, a student may take six hours weekly of the local language, Romanian, four of math and two of English. Some teachers only work on certain days. Others split their time among two or more schools. Still others leave school unexpectedly for personal reasons. Some teachers have their own classrooms; others move around.
“It’s a nightmare to juggle everything,” says Dee, who discovered the problem during her first few days as an English teacher in the small Moldovan city of Calarasi. Her own schedule kept changing along with everyone else’s. School officials could use existing software to develop new schedules, but they had to pay high fees to print each version — this in Europe’s poorest country.
After discussing the problem with Dee’s colleagues, Brent began developing a new class-scheduling system with the coding language Java, eventually writing more than 20,000 lines of code. He completed a prototype within three months. The program worked so well that neighboring schools installed it as well. Dee and Brent then reached out to Peace Corps education volunteers throughout Moldova, many of whose schools also adopted the software, which Brent and Dee kept refining.
A local Peace Corps official, Eugenia Iurco, brought the program to the attention of friends working in Moldova’s education ministry. One of them, senior consultant Inga Cruciescu, recognized the program’s potential to solve a long-standing national problem without incurring new costs. She embraced it and began teaching regional workshops with Brent and Dee, training administrators how to install and use the latest version of the program.
“The program really simplifies the process of planning lessons and improves the quality of education,” Cruciescu says. “”We’ve piloted it in 150 schools and plan to take it to the national level next year.”
Ionela Titirez of the U.S. Agency for International Development got behind the effort, too, providing transportation and refreshments for the workshops and arranging to translate the user’s guide and other materials into both Romanian and Moldova’s other main language, Russian. A small grant from the Peace Corps Partnership Program covered some of the project’s other costs. Brent’s work partners — Victor Ambroci, Valeria Ambroci and Evgheny Tinonov — assisted as well.
“Brent and Dee have done tremendous work,” Cruciescu says. “It’s been amazing to observe how much effort and personal time they’ve dedicated. At first glance you might have expected a language or age barrier, but both of them were very flexible and open. We’ve had an impressive collaboration.”
While working on the project, Brent also helped Stacy Chong, 49, a Peace Corps small enterprise volunteer working to assist Moldova’s fashion industry.
“Brent was an integral part of our project to develop Moldova’s very first textile library,” says Chong, who recently completed her service and began attending graduate school in Boston. “He built the database that enabled us to store information about all of our swatches and books. That enabled us to create an online textile library to assist Moldova’s fashion industry, which is growing rapidly and employs more than 20,000 women. Brent did all of this for no other reason than to help us.”
Both projects have been “totally different” from Brent’s previous work in a corporate setting back home. “I used to enjoy working with our customers and, of course the company might give me promotions or financial rewards. Here I feel like I’m really making a difference in people’s lives.”
“We’re not living in poverty as Peace Corps volunteers, but we’re certainly not living as multimillionaires. We’re getting a heck of a lot more than money,” agrees Dee, who grew up in Bangkok before moving to the United States decades ago.
She and Brent encourage other older Americans to consider Peace Corps service. “You get more respect as an older volunteer,” Dee says. “If you still have your health and you have the yearning to help others, you should do it.”
With two adult children and four grandchildren back in America, the couple is looking forward to returning home. However, they don’t expect to stop seeking new challenges and ways to help others.
“Am I just going to sit around on my couch or my porch, waiting to die?” Dee says. “My experience in the Peace Corps has shown me there is so much more I can do.”