Most people in the Fox Valley know Mike Dixon for his commitment to historic preservation. The former St. Charles architect has been involved in several local historic restorations and the expansion of the St. Charles library.
So, it was a bit of a surprise when he decided to leave his firm at the age of 62 and join the Peace Corps.
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"My brother, John, joined the Peace Corps after college and had a great experience," said Dixon. "I wanted to join; but I ended up getting number one in the lottery for the Vietnam War, so I went into the Army instead."
After Peace Corps meetings in Washington D.C., Dixon was sent to Ukraine, with a site assignment in Vinnytsia, a city of 380,000 where the average person lives on $175 a month. His assignment was community development.
Peace Corps volunteers live within a country and learn what the community needs rather than go in with a predetermined project. Dixon said he learned a lot from living within his community.
"At first, they really didn't trust me," he said. "They couldn't understand why someone would leave America with its streets paved in gold to come to Ukraine were the roads were made of dirt. They didn't really know about America and they didn't understand the concept of volunteering."
Not only did Mike Dixon share his knowledge of architecture, he also studied the history of Vinnytsia and Ukraine. He visited the old buildings and learned about their origins. He was surprised to learn that in a country, rich with history, the students didn't have history classes.
"I was told that I knew more about the history of Ukraine than most Ukrainians," added Dixon.
During his three-year stint, Mike Dixon took more than 15,000 photographs of the Ukrainian people, the architecture and the landscape. His photography led to the publication of a tourism book for the city of Vinnytsia. He was also asked to exhibit his photography in a gallery in Crimea. The photographs capture the strength and pride of the Ukrainians.
"They are such a gracious and hospitable people," said Dixon. "They were very kind in welcoming me to their country."
The photographs also show a country rich in history with buildings that have withstood wars and conflicts but showing the signs of age. Dixon began working on the restoration of historical buildings and developing museums. He is still working on a restoration project for Lubart's Castle in Lutske, Ukraine.
When the protest broke out in Kiev, it was very peaceful. As the conflict escalated, the situation became increasingly worrisome, especially for family members back home.
"It was hard for everyone," said Dixon. "Even my son sent me an email that read, 'Get out of there, already.'"
Soon trains stopped running and transportation broke down. Media outlets were forced to shut down, as well as all other forms of communication, he said. With the political situation threatening the safety of its volunteers, the Peace Corps made the decision to do an emergency evacuation of 228 of its volunteers in Ukraine.
"We were told to pack up everything and leave it in the middle of our apartments and just take essentials," added Dixon. "The hard part was leaving and not being able to say goodbye to our Ukrainian friends."
Dixon was designated an international spokesman for the Peace Corps and is busy giving talks to groups throughout the Fox Valley about his time spent in Ukraine. He proudly dons traditional Ukrainian garb and tells the story of a country rich in history and rich in spirit.
It is his hope that Americans will have a better understanding of the Ukrainian people and the country he has grown to love.