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May 4, 2012

Courtesy Simon Williams

Simon Williams, fourth from right, walked away from minor league baseball to join the Peace Corps, and has connected with students in a school in the Ukraine.

Steve Solloway: Finding peace in the Peace Corps

Simon Williams' biggest fans these days are no older than 6 and no taller than 4 feet. They watch for him almost every morning.

"I walk through the gate to the schoolyard and look to my left," says Williams. "Most of the kindergarten is waiting for my arrival and when they see me, they explode with smiles and waves. Talk about a great way to start your day."

Yes, Williams can remember the applause and cheers when he walked to the batter's box wearing his Portland High uniform and later the colors of the University of Maine. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in 2004. He was an outfielder blessed with quickness and athleticism, and chasing a dream. He can remember the crowds at minor league ballparks when his name was announced.

His passion for baseball was evident. Fans loved his hustle and his smile.

That life is in his past. His present revolves around life in a small village in central Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union. Williams is a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English and organizing physical activities for about 100 students in grades K through 11. The village itself has about 500 people.

His small house is a short walk from the school, which is good. Passengers stand shoulder to shoulder on the bus. More horse-drawn carts than cars use the road.

He has electricity but no indoor plumbing. His shower is a bucket. He has access to the Internet in the village but it's not reliable. We sent emails to each other over the past two weeks.

"Steve, I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I just can't stop smiling. I wanted to see the world, work with less fortunate kids and experience a different culture. The Peace Corps offered 27 months of exactly that."

He played three seasons in the Cardinals' minor league system and three in independent baseball. He walked away after the 2009 season with Kalamazoo of the Frontier League.

"My hitting was quite (inconsistent). I was either real hot or real cold and that is most definitely not a key to success. One thing I could do was run down a baseball: getting a good jump, a good read, taking a good route. Man, oh man, do I miss that."

How does someone so busy taking one road jump so quickly to a much different road?

"Simon always had a global view," says Aaron Izaryk, a former teammate and roommate at Maine, and now head coach at Bridgton Academy. "He could see the greater good. He's the one who looks through a different piece of glass.

"I don't think Simon identified himself as a baseball player. I think what we're seeing now is what Simon really is."

Ukraine has been in the news. Some Ukrainians have protested the continued imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and face of the Orange Revolution that led the country further from Communism. There were bombings last week. Nine European leaders are staying away from a summit hosted by Ukraine this month. The Euro 2012 soccer championships co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland in June and July may be in jeopardy.

"The safety and security of all Peace Corps volunteers is the agency's highest priority," said Elizabeth Chamberlain, public affairs specialist with the Peace Corps office in Boston. She said the agency closely monitors all host countries.

For security reasons, it is Peace Corps policy not to identify the exact locations where volunteers work.

Williams doesn't live in a cocoon, but his Ukranian and Russian speaking skills are too limited, he says, as is the English of adult villagers. Too much would be lost in the translation.

He is the American with the infectious smile who has become son and brother to many. He sawed off a broom handle, got a tennis ball, found rocks to use as bases and introduced stickball to the school. He shows students the fundamentals of baseball but too often the game becomes more like keep-away. "You've got to start somewhere," he says.

Through the Peace Corps Partnership Grant Program (go.usa.gov/mzm) money is being raised for a sports field, which the village does not have.

He doesn't keep up with the daily drama that is the Red Sox. He's grateful he wasn't back in Maine to watch the collapse last September when the Red Sox missed going to the playoffs.

He will leave this village in June 2013. That will be difficult. "Just like in America, people here struggle to pay their bills and provide for their families. I've gotten to work side-by-side with some of the kindest and strongest people I have ever known. I literally get choked up thinking about how everyone here has made me feel like part of their families.

"Do I miss playing baseball? I miss competing. I miss being part of a team."

He found a different team.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway/PPH





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