Published Friday, February 08, 2013

Newnan-trained Russians have become entrepreneurs

By MARIANNE THOMASSON

marianne@newnan.com

So far, more than 45 Russians have been to Newnan where they have stayed in our homes and learned business skills. There are 10 more scheduled to come to Coweta County in the coming months.

Sharon Tennison, founder and president of the Center for Citizen Initiatives (CCI), addressed the Newnan Kiwanis Club Tuesday at its weekly luncheon at the Newnan Country Club.

“Someone had to do a lot of clean-up work after Communism fell,” she said. “You’ll never believe the impact you had on these people. Every place I’ve gone to in Russia, I’ve evaluated their businesses. To a person, they declare that this was the most Earth-shaking event in their lives.”

CCI is going into its 30th year. Local Kiwanian Don Chapman has been on its board for 20 years.

“We’ve never been a government program,” Tennison stated. “We are much more efficient than government programs. Citizens from around the country have helped at no charge and with passion in their hearts. It has worked miracles.”

Besides matching Russians with American citizens for business information, CCI has been involved in establishing Alcoholics Anonymous programs throughout Russia. Chapman has been instrumental in establishing Kiwanis there as well.

Thirty years ago in Russia and the U.S. “there were 50,000 nuclear weapons on the ground and ready to send. If even 10 percent had been detonated, this planet would be a cinder. Today most of these weapons have been destroyed, both here and in Russia. Today the world is much safer and nobody worries about these two super powers,” Tennison stated.

The rotten economy in the U.S. bled over into Europe and Russia, she said. Over the months staff was reduced, the building space was downsized and the Russians scheduled for this program gradually dropped out, afraid to spend the money necessary to travel. The upcoming delegation coming to Newnan “is not a CCI delegation. The only program I’m running now is putting computers and trainers in orphanages for the children after school.”

There is still misunderstanding between the Russian and American cultures, she continued. “We’re rugged individuals and they’re used to obeying from the top.”

Tennison met Soviet President Vladimir Puten before he rose to higher office. “He never expected to be president,” she said. She was in St. Petersburg and needed approval for a program from him. “I went into a brown room with a brown desk and he had on a brown suit. Over the course of an hour and 15 minutes I realized this was a different kind of bureaucrat. All the others asked for a bribe or a trip to the U.S. Puten asked me one intelligent question after another. At the end, he said ‘was a good idea, but at this time it’s not legal and I cannot sign off on it.’”

She has written a book titled “The Power of Impossible Ideas,” which she describes as “ordinary citizens’ extraordinary efforts to avert international crises.” It is in three sections: the 1980s when Russia was still communist, the 1990s that were full of chaos and crime, and the 2000s “coming into what we hope will be democracy.”

Next week’s Kiwanis Club program will feature Linda Whitten, who will speak about “Meals on Wheels.”

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