Words from a fellow volunteer:
A young man and woman walked along a street in New York City. It was a pleasant summer evening, and many people were on the street. A man approached the young couple. The man was drunk. A fresh scar on his face suggested that he had been in a fight.
“Please help me. I am hungry,” the man begged.
The young woman was frightened and drew back. But Bob Zech spoke calmly to the beggar. “Come, I’ll get you some food,” he said.
Bob took the man into a near-by grocery store. There he bought food for the hungry beggar.
Telling about this later, the young woman said, “That small act gave a picture of Bob’s life. He did not turn the other way. He tried to help.”
A Boy Grows Up
Bob Zech was a happy, busy boy. From early childhood he lived in the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico . His parents were missionaries. He raised rabbits. He liked to swim and to play basketball and baseball. He took part in church activities.
Bob was an eager Boy Scout who worked his way to the rank of Eagle Scout. He attended a worldwide Scout meeting. As a lad he found camping great fun. After he became an Eagle Scout, he served as a camp leader.
Spanish is the language spoken by most people in Puerto Rico. Bob spoke the language of his Puerto Rican friends. He understood them and liked them. His classmates liked him, too. They did not treat him as an outsider. They elected him president of his Ponce High School senior class.
Bob was a worker in the Young Men’s Christian Association. He was the leader of a group of YMCA boys who built an outdoor basketball court. He helped to get permission for YMCA members to use the pool at a country club.
Bob returned to the States to go to college. He attended Otterbein College and graduated. For more than a year he lived on a large farm. Among other jobs on the farm he learned to drive a tractor. He also operated a machine that washed eggs before they were sent to market.
A President Points the Way
In 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States. He supported a plan, put into law by Congress the next year, to set up the Peace Corps. The Peace Crops is a body of workers who go to other lands to help people learn better ways of living. Each Peace Corps worker volunteers, or offers, to serve for a period of two years. These workers are known as Peace Corps Volunteer. Some are schoolteacher. Some are farmers who show people how to raise better crops. Still others help to build roads, bridges, and other things needed.
President Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected President. Many young people admired him. They believed that he understood their problems. The Peace Corps gave many young people-and older people, too-an opportunity to serve America. Thousands of persons joined.
Bob Zech Makes a Decision
When Bob Zech graduated from college, he thought about what to do with his life. He had a good education. He could speak both Spanish and English. He had lived among Spanish-speaking Americans and liked them. He wanted to use these talents and be of help to the world. He decided to volunteer for the Peace Corps.
Bob said, “In the Peace Corps we can help… people to help themselves. I would like to do something in a positive way for world peace. I think the Peace Corps will give me that opportunity.”
Bob went to California to study with other Peace Corps Volunteers. Then he was sent, with a group of other Peace Corps workers, to the Dominican Republic. This country is on an island in the Caribbean Sea. Its people speak Spanish.
A Community Worker Arrives
One autumn day in 1963 Bob arrived in the city of San Francisco de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic. His work was to help the people make their community a better place in which to live. This work of the Peace Corps is called Urban Community Development. “Urban” means city.
Bob was so eager to get started in his work that he chose his new home quickly. The house was a wooden shack on a muddy street. It was easy to get acquainted with his neighbors because the people were friendly. Curious children came at all hours. Grown-up people spoke to him as they passed. Soon they began to drop in to talk.
Bob and the other Volunteers went to a meeting of businessmen in the city. The men promised to help the Volunteers in their work. Not long after this Bob proposed a plan to send some city boys to Puerto Rico to get an education. The businessmen raised the needed money.
Community Development Moves Forward
Many people in the city were ill. Their illness was caused by a lack of cleanliness. Bob helped a Peace Corps Volunteer nurse and a city doctor make a plan for a health campaign. They got other city doctors and the Public Health Department to help them. They talked to the people over the radio about the need to keep clean. They showed motion pictures on the outside walls of buildings. People on the streets looked at the pictures and learned how to keep clean.
Bob and his friends began the campaign for cleanliness in one part of the city. The people learned quickly. The campaign was then extended to the whole city. Many sick people got better. Soon the idea was put to work in the country and in near-by cities. Thousands of people were helped.
The older boys in the city where Bob worked formed an organization. Many of them had worked in the first health campaign and wanted to extend it. They planned hikes in the country. But they wanted most to have a health program during the summer. Bob helped them set it up.
The boys planned many activities to help the city. They thought there should be places all over the city where people could swim and play games. They planned to get rid of rats. They wanted to set up classes where people could learn to read. They planned to send older boys who had studied farming in a special high school to work in the country. There the boys would teach farmers how to raise better crops. They would also organize clubs for farm boys and girls.
Bob Zech moved like a spinning top from one task to another. He worked with a scouting program and organized a group of men who promised to help the Scouts. He led a boys’ club whose members were interested in science. He played on a basketball team. He arranged for certain boys to go to Puerto Rico to be trained as group leaders. He taught an English class. Always he tried to meet people and to find new ways to develop the community.
Bob had time for friends, too. He invited students who needed a quiet place to study to use his house. He made city people and other Peace Corps Volunteers welcome. His visitors found the soft-spoken blue-eyed young man an interesting person to meet and know.
In April 1965, a revolution broke out in the Dominican Republic. There was shooting. No one knew what might happen. This made it hard to go on with the summer program. But Bob and his group went on with their plans.
One day in June 1965 Bob, a friend from Puerto Rico, and several other Volunteers set out for Santo Domingo. They were driving in a small car. Coming around a curve near the city, they crashed head-on into a small truck. Two of the Volunteers were killed. One of the two was Bob Zech.
His Work Goes On
Bob’s death did not end the community development program in San Francisco de Macoris. Instead his friends were now determined to go on with it. They felt that this was the best way to honor Bob’s memory. Other Volunteers took up Bob’s tasks. Most hopeful of all, people who had taken no part in the program stepped forward to help.
Bob Zech helped the people of San Francisco de Macoris to help themselves. Because he did, his work lives on. Every American who has served his fellowmen has helped to make America great. Robert Franklin Zech was such an American.
– Photos and text shared by Friends of the Dominican Republic, RPCV group