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Mel and Nena Chudnof met when they were 15. Got married at 21. A year ago they celebrated their golden jubilee anniversary. As convention goes, we should call them old people. But, honestly, this word does not fit this cheerful couple. Even the more politically correct ‘elderly people’ hardly suits them. Nena goes to the swimming pool, Mel adores hiking, cycling and swimming. While remembering about their kids and grandkids, they find the time for their old friends and various events. Plus the usual home chores. In general, their every day is scheduled minute-by-minute. You should see their daily planner with scribbles in every line. Meanwhile, the family couple has hopscotched and continues to travel all over the world, having visited many destinations including very exotic ones. You think this is about some extraordinary people? No doubt, Mel and Nena are extraordinary personalities. But being so extraordinary is quite typical for the USA. ‘I take my neighbor as an example, - says Mel. – In terms of leading a healthy and active life, I would like to be independent like him. He’s turned 95 years old not so long ago.”
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Mel and Nena Chudnof in their home with many pictures of grandchildren.
Even more striking in the Chudnof family is another thing. They are frequent participants of various volunteer programs and charity events. For instance, Mel and Nena often host exchange program participants (including Open World; this is how we got to know them). It means not just giving them a place to stay in their wonderful and cozy house (it took them 30 years to pay for the mortgage loan) on a lake shore, but also cooking for them, going with them to various meetings, organizing their free time and helping to resolve elementary day-to-day issues. And all this for free, pure volunteering. From time to time they go to Mexico where they help the hungry and the needy. While we were staying with the Chudnofs, their local parish held a blood drive. Mel was the organizer, and Nena was his main helper. ‘Do you volunteer in politics?’ - I ask. ‘We do,’ says Mel. ‘For instance, now we are collecting signatures for a referendum to change the borders of our constituencies.’ ‘What for?’ - I wonder. ‘Our constituencies are often sliced taking into account political preferences of the elected. We want to eliminate such binding to make the voting more fair,’ says Mel. ‘How hard is it to initiate a referendum?’ I inquire again. ‘You have to collect 400 thousand signatures,’ replies the 72-year-old volunteer showing a pile of forms with the signatures he has already collected. And looking at his glaring eyes, you understand that this guy (this is, probably, the most suitable word) will have it all done.
Regarding participation in social life, Mel and Nena are typical Americans. Mel drives us to Judy who is hosting another program participant from Kazan. Then Judy, also driving her own car, takes us to Jim and Py, where two more our Russian colleagues are staying. And everywhere there the same story with volunteering hyperactivity, with just minor variations and faith specifics. And what is striking: this activity has no age limits. The profiles give Judy’s, Jim’s and Py’s age as 70+. We decided not to find out exactly how old they are. But a whole array of collateral information suggests that they are far beyond 70+. In our country, the lives of old people smell of naphthalene, apathy and limpness. In the US, they are full of thirst for action, vivacity and fun.
Our characters are the summit of social icebergs whose bulk disguises an absolutely different attitude to life and, as a consequence, an absolutely different setup of civil society. In the US, no one owes anything to anyone. Not satisfied with your life? Wanna change it for the better? Take action! Everything is in your hands. Most Americans have no habit of expecting gifts from the government. The word ‘paternalism’ is not in their lexis. They prefer to resolve existing issues themselves.
Such world view is a driver both for the success philosophy and, by inertia, for the economy, as well as the basis for colossal civil activity. Being a volunteer, doing charity work, participating in various public events is a standard for many Americans. America is built from the bottom, from grassroots, as Americans themselves put it. It was written by Mark Twain who said that as soon as three Americans got together, they created a committee to solve their daily issues. In other words, Americans do not let the grass grow under their feet but rather act, thus changing this world.
Mel started to volunteer when he was very young. Being a high school student, he gave free lessons to children from poor districts. When they got a job, Mel and Nena always found the time for volunteer service, as well, although Americans work radically much. After retirement, this became almost their main occupation. By the way, they volunteer not only in their own area and community, but outside the country, as well. Thus, a few years back they worked in a system of free public food service in Mexico for kids from families which suffered from famine. ‘Why do you need this?’ I ask Mel. At first, he is at a loss and, not knowing how to answer, shrugs his shoulders. But then, on giving it a second thought, he notes, ‘Probably, it’s just a part of my personality.’ ‘May be, you are driven by religious motivation?’ I try to clarify. ‘Partly so,’ he agrees. ‘In our faith, there is a commandment to leave the world a better place than the one you came into.’
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Stu Raben (Mel in background) donating “double red” blood cells
It looks like this commandment has been found by many Americans in their religions. Synagogues, churches, and mosques which are not just a place of worship. These are community centers with colossal charity work carried out. The temples of all three confessions that we have managed to visit, in addition to a prayer room, have large areas for various social activities. Here, they teach children, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, provide flu shots, and so on, and so forth. In Kazan, we see something similar in Yardem mosque in Serova Street, where a lot of help is provided for people with disabilities and orphans. But while in our case it’s more of an exception, for religious temples in the USA such practices are quite a rule. ‘In your opinion, why are Americans so active in the sphere of charity and volunteerism?’ I ask the Chudnofs. ‘Not all Americans,’ Mel specifies. ‘It’s more characteristic of the liberal part of the population. Conservatives can be charitable, but they are not as supportive of social services and social justice issues. ’ By the way, all host families where our delegation were staying had been linked with education during their career: some had worked at school, and some at university. And yes: all of them are Democrats who are not happy, to put it mildly, about Donald Trump.
There is a popular opinion that the US private charity system is unique. Americans spend almost 400 billion dollars a year for charity. And these are only direct donations. Besides, according to statistics, over 60 million people in the USA are volunteers https://www.bls.gov/news.release/volun.nr0.htm. It is hard to calculate how much their work is worth in monetary terms. But if we managed to do this, we would get an astronomic figure, as well. ‘What’s the global reason for this?’ I ask Mel. ‘Probably, it’s that we have real capitalism,’ he says, therefore we also need volunteer charitable and social justice activities. ‘Other countries who provide social servies, to this to that extent, are socialist: the state solves some of the citizens’ problems. While we help ourselves.’ Self-reliance – hoping and relying solely on oneself – is probably the American national idea, the genome of their mentality, as our interpreter who has been living in the US for more than 20 years has put it.
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A University sponsored free food pantry for the poor.
This idea penetrates even the everyday level of life in the USA. When Americans welcome dear guests, they tell them, ‘Help yourself’, or, if adapted to our mentality, ‘Feel at home.’ The organizers of our program explained what this phrase means: ‘If you want some tea, get up and heat the kettle yourself. Hungry? – go to the fridge and take whatever you want. This is the way Americans live.’ ‘If you feel constrained,’ our interpreter adds, ‘the hosts will also feel uncomfortable.’ Of course, we don’t want to make uncomfortable the people that have opened up the doors of their house for us and shown great kindness. But, to tell you the truth, it is very difficult to get over the ‘decency’ rules of your culture and start managing a house which is not yours. Mel and Nena seemed to understand it. For we are not the first guests from the former USSR they are hosting. And with a softness worthy of a Saint Petersburg intellectuals, they show their hospitality just the way it is common in Russia: based on the mental matrix of paternalism, not on the paradigm ‘Help yourself.’
Another consequence of this focus is the attitude to one’s own old age. I used to have a stereotype regarding the reasons why many Americans find themselves in nursing homes at the end of their life. It is not the callousness of children whose tough pragmatism, as I supposed, makes them get rid of everything redundant in your life, whatever hinders you, including the parents. It is the desire of the elderly people themselves to be ‘Help yourself’ in any situation. They just can’t imagine themselves otherwise. ‘We need kids for love,’ Nena explains, ‘and not for the solution of our problems.’ Honestly, these words turn upside down the way I see the world. I’ve always believed that we Russians are more soulful and sincere, while Americans are colder and thriftier. It seemed that they treat people only as a resource. But it turns out to be just the other way round. We are the ones who regard their own children as a resource for their old age, as some kind of a profitable investment in their future in retirement, while Americans continue to simply love them without expecting anything in return.
Love is probably the main foundation in Mel and Nena’s life. This love is felt in their caring attitude to each other. They are surrounded with the eyes of children and grandchildren whose numerous photographs adorn every corner of the house. And this love is what nourishes their passion for an eager volunteer service to people, which makes our world a little better.READ MORE