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Pittsburgh law firm helps with book drive to Russia

| Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Working as a teacher and translator in St. Petersburg, Russia, former Murrysville resident Lindy Comstock saw both the desire to learn English from her students and the lack of actual understanding of America, and she decided to try to do something to help. So she began what would eventually become a kind of book airlift to Russia, starting in Pittsburgh.

"Last fall, I was teaching eighth grade at International Lyceum #664," Comstock says. "The librarian asked me to help out by ranking the difficulty of their English language books. Upon inspection of their collection, I realized they only had about 50 books, although I knew that English books were very popular among my students. I figured that, given the enjoyment the children showed in reading English books, it would be a shame to not try to get them some more."

She contacted the Princeton Alumni Association of Western Pennsylvania to find people who might be interested in running the book drive. She came into contact with Laura Ellsworth, the partner in charge of the Pittsburgh law office of Jones Day, which also has an office in Moscow. Jones Day and four other firms joined together to donate books to the program.

The Carnegie Library agreed to let them sort through books the library wasn't using. About half of the books for the drive came from the Carnegie.

One of the Jones Day lawyers, Andrew Kozusko, took a particular interest and helped arrange for UPS to ship the books for free.

"If you are an English speaker in the world, you have a leg up," Kozusko says. "What this is doing is ultimately giving these Russian high school students more opportunities."

Levent Sevil, a Russian administrator at one of the schools where Comstock taught, is helping organize distribution of the books in St. Petersburg and Moscow. They'll be shipped from Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

"'As far as I can observe, after perestroika (the "thaw" in the Cold War),Russian people started to discover other countries," says Sevil. "This also triggered social and commercial relationships, but there was something missing -- a real communication with the outer world. So the solution is English. That is why the majority of parents want their kids to learn and talk English very well."

Comstock says one reason she wants the book project to be successful is to help counter negative impressions of America.

"Last spring, the school and I attempted to organize an educational trip to the U.S., but the children were denied visas," Comstock says. "If initially they were curious -- if uninformed -- about the U.S., now I do not think that they have a positive opinion, and I can understand why.

"Children get very excited about the prospect of going somewhere and then feel that they personally are being rejected, especially because we can offer them no explanation. The consulate categorically refuses to provide information about the requirements for the visa application procedure or explanations for refusals. It enforces the idea (for Russians) that trying to play by the rules doesn't get you anywhere. We had children crying and completely demoralized. In general, it is a terrible pity, because I had wanted to show them the positive aspects of the U.S. that are not visible without visiting the country."

Comstock hopes this book drive will help change perceptions of America, in a small way.

It's already made a difference in Pittsburgh. The Jones Day lawyers who worked on the project were inspired to start a new literacy program, focusing on problems closer to home.

Pennsylvania Lawyers for Literacy will get lawyers to go into disadvantaged school districts and read to school students, run book drives and try to lead by example in getting kids interested in reading.

"All of us at Jones Day have been blessed with great educations and access to phenomenal resources," Kozusko says. "We want others to have access to those resources, as well."

"From our perspective, illiteracy has created an economic ceiling," says Mike Comber, another lawyer at Jones Day. "We want to go out to the communities and help people break through that ceiling."

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