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Helping the Global Family

Helping the Global Family

Fletcher School graduate Karel Zelenka received the Tufts Alumni Association Distinguished Service Award for his work in international relief and development.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.29.09] For Karel Zelenka, several years of working for multinational companies had left him "disillusioned with the 'business world.'"

"The business world tends to over-emphasize material gains and commercialize most aspects of life," Zelenka says.

So in 1986, a year after finishing his doctorate in international economics-his third degree from The Fletcher School-Zelenka joined Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a nonprofit that conducts relief and development work in more than 100 countries.

Over the past two decades, Zelenka has helped further the CRS mission in a number of countries, including Russia, Croatia and Zimbabwe, where he is currently serving as country representative. His years of service to the organization were a major factor in his being selected to receive the Tufts Alumni Association Distinguished Service Award. Each year the award honors eight alumni who have shown "outstanding service to Tufts, their professions or their communities."

"The award means so much to me and my family, as it is a recognition by my alma mater as being one of their own, which is not only heart-warming, but also inspires genuine gratitude for all that Fletcher, Tufts and America have given me and enabled me to accomplish," Zelenka says. "It is also an acknowledgment of CRS ethos and the great work that the agency is doing around the world, and it is strong motivation for my future work, since it literally makes me feel like rolling up my sleeves to do more and better."

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Zelenka and family.

Moving to the U.S. from Prague in the late 1960s, following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Zelenka spent several years working for companies such as Gillette and Motorola in between studying at Tufts and working toward becoming a U.S. citizen.

When he began at Catholic Relief Services, he initially worked at the organization's headquarters in Baltimore, coordinating relief and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa.

"In Baltimore, I organized-among other things-the start up of a huge CRS program in the far east of Russia in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union," Zelenka says. "Shortly after that, I prepared and organized a three-year series of management training sessions for the new development and social welfare organizations of the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe called 'Caritas,' which were suppressed during communism."

When war broke out in the Balkans in 1992, Zelenka was nominated to be the CRS country representative in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he set up large-scale relief and rehabilitation programs for refugees and internally displaced people and was asked by Caritas Internationalis to assume responsibility for responding to major emergencies worldwide. Zelenka has since played a role in several disaster relief efforts, including the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, the earthquakes in Sumatra, Indonesia, and the recent conflict in Darfur.

Currently stationed in Zimbabwe, Zelenka says he is in charge of leading one of "the largest CRS programs in the world-helping survive over one million beneficiaries a day in a very difficult operational environment."

According to Zelenka, "The ever-changing situation in Zimbabwe-characterized by a multi-million percent annual inflation last year, collapsed public health and education systems, non-functioning water-sanitation services and scarcity of electricity, severe food shortages and the cholera epidemic-requires a multitude of quick and effective responses."

Working through desperate times in desolate areas, Zelenka says the most important part of his job is never losing hope.

"The most important prerequisite for dealing with disasters and dangerous operational environments is not to lose hope in the ability to help and improve the situation, and to seriously consider local coping mechanisms, which are almost always present," he says.

Zelenka sees the greatest success of Catholic Relief Services in Zimbabwe as the impact it's had on the lives of children, many of which were orphaned due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, in terms of preventing malnutrition and helping them to stay in school and receive an education.

"I look at the world as a family, and I know that in most families around the globe, individual family members help each other without excluding anyone," he says. "I consider myself lucky in that I have been blessed with a beautiful family, good health, excellent education and a great, personally rewarding job. I am trying to help less fortunate brothers and sisters around the globe get the same, as an expression of my gratitude for the many blessings in my own life."

 

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications.

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