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Change of Heart

To pursue his passion for helping others, James Wirt, BA ’11, allowed himself to change.

Every morning, James Wirt, BA ’11, wakes up to the sight of Gjeravica, Kosovo’s tallest mountain out on the horizon. It’s quite a change from the flat expanse of Ada, Ohio, where Wirt spent four years earning a degree in history education from Ohio Northern University, but change is to be expected when you follow your heart.

For Wirt, change came during his junior year at ONU with the realization that he didn’t really want to be a teacher anymore. His desire was simply to help people. The funny thing is that teaching was the only helping profession he knew of when he was looking at colleges and programs of study, and that’s why he chose it. But at ONU, he learned about more ways to help thanks to ONU’s commitment to service learning and professors who took the time to guide him toward his interests.

“At ONU, I was really pushed to explore different service-related fields. Although it was too late to change my major, Dr. John Lomax introduced me to a friend of his who was a retired social worker,” says Wirt.

That meeting was all Wirt needed to see himself as a social worker. After graduating from ONU, he enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a Master of Social Work in 2015. He was hired as a child welfare/foster care case manager in Philadelphia County, Pa., where he worked until another change came his way.

In his heart, Wirt has always wanted to serve. Through his deeds, he has always helped others. At ONU, he served as an assistant to the football team instead of playing on it like his brother. After graduating, he became an AmeriCorps volunteer in Philadelphia, Pa., where he tutored and mentored at-risk middle school students in the City Year program. That year made a big impact on Wirt, and so when the opportunity to help others in another part of the world presented itself, he took it.

I have always been called to service, and as a social worker, I felt like the next logical step was the Peace Corps,” says Wirt.

President Kennedy established Peace Corps in 1961 to provide social and economic development abroad. For nearly 60 years, American volunteers have shared technical assistance and educational resources in 141 countries across the globe. Peace Corps is the preeminent organization in the world for helping others and the perfect fit for someone like Wirt.   

Wirt and his wife, Rachel, became Peace Corps volunteers in June 2017. After a training period, they were dispatched to Kosovo to teach English to the local community. Soon after arriving, they both realized there was more they could do.

Of their English students, the majority were women. Employment is a major challenge in Kosovo, particularly for women who face greater rates of exclusion from the workforce due to cultural reasons. According to Wirt, women own only 11.5 percent of businesses in the country. He decided to try to change that statistic in his host community by writing a grant application to start, of all things, a bee farm.

“Beekeeping is a strength of our area because of the proximity to the mountains and the surrounding wildlife. The idea behind the bee farm was to match the community’s strength with the community’s area of need. The project focused on women’s empowerment through education and training, while also offering a chance to participate in the informal labor market,” he says.

A group of nine women meet regularly for training, and their success has been featured by Peace Corps on its website and in social media. Wirt is now working on another women’s economic empowerment project around beekeeping. He successfully obtained a grant to expand a woman-owned beekeeping supply store in the area to include machines that produce bee food (pollen patties). With this accomplishment, he has helped create the country’s first manufacturer of pollen patties.

Wirt is overjoyed to contribute to a country and community that he has grown to love. Kosovo has one of the youngest populations in Europe, and the country is full of potential and energy as a result. He chose Kosovo in part because of a class he took at ONU taught by Dr. Catherine Albrecht, former dean of the Getty College of Arts & Sciences, that explored life in the Balkans under communist control.

“The absolute best part of serving in the Peace Corps and living in Kosovo is the people,” he says. “Kosovar-Albanian culture is so rich in tradition. There are traditional clothes and many traditional foods – flia, pita, tespishte, various honeys, caj rusi, to name a few. In the summer, we attend many weddings, we receive guests and are guests in our neighbors’ homes daily. There is a strong ‘coffee culture’ here, and much of my time is spent visiting local friends and colleagues.”

In August, the Wirts will return home to central Pennsylvania. James plans to return to social work, with hopes of continuing to work with child welfare, where his giving spirit and commitment to the service of others will be put to great use. It will be a bit of a change after two years in Kosovo, but change – as James knows well – can be a good thing.