Volunteer Stories

David Bernheisel



Current title/profession: Former computer adviser and small business owner
State: DE
Areas of expertise: Financial planning, business development
Organization that sent the volunteer: CNFA


This article was originally written by Nick Roth and published in the Cape Gazette.

There's a world traveler, then there's Dave Bernheisel.

Since 1991, the 81-year-old Lewes man tried to spread his business knowledge and ensure democracy thrives during more than two dozen missions in second- and third-world countries around the world.

His work often takes him to poorer African countries or former Soviet states. Whether observing an election or working with a struggling farmer, his goal is always to make the world a better place. "I just feel Americans should get out and mix with people around the world; get to know them and have them get to know us, so we're not just who they see on TV or in our movies," he said. "I think it is doing good in the world. My contribution is like one grain of sand on the beach, which is very, very small, but at least it's a step in the right direction."

For the last two years, Bernheisel has traveled to Angola, on Africa's western coast, representing Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture, a nonprofit dedicated to filling the world's growing demand for food, which implements the USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer program. On his most recent trip, he worked with the owner of a small farm to better understand the importance of financial planning. The farmer has a 75-acre farm where he harvests cassava, sugar cane and vegetables. He also has hogs, chickens, goats and sheep. The goal, Bernheisel said, was to improve the productivity and income of the farm. If successful, the farm's workers could enjoy a higher income and, hopefully, improve their quality of life.

Bernheisel shares his experiences gained from owning and operating a small business. After retiring from the government, Bernheisel started his own business in the marine field, distributing appliances for sailboats as well as natural gas for fuel. His small business background also came in handy when he and his wife, Mary, joined the Peace Corps in 1991. The couple was attracted to the Peace Corps while on a trip to Romania for their son's wedding in 1990. Their return trip took them through Prague, and they immediately fell in love with the city.

"We heard the Peace Corps was sending volunteers to Eastern Europe," he said. "We thought we could go to Prague and spend a couple of years there."

That wasn't the case, though. The couple was instead sent to Mongolia. Bernheisel first worked as a computer adviser to the Ministry of Health, the field in which he had worked with the government. Then, in his second year, he worked with the mission director to set up a small business development program. Bernheisel said he is proud of the work he has done over the last 25 years.

"Sometimes foreign assistance programs don't work out," he said. "You hear about graft and corruption, and people building a big building the people didn't want. But with this, there is no graft or corruption because there is nothing to steal. I'm working with people who I'm pretty sure are doing something they want to participate in."

When not helping farmers improve their business plans, Bernheisel often visits countries as an election observer with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Representatives from various countries will travel to observe an election, and OSCE does not dictate or interfere in the election, but offers an opinion once the election is complete.

"You're an observer, not an enforcer," Bernheisel said. "If I see someone stuffing the ballot box, I don't try to stop them. I might mention it to the polling station supervisor. If he tells me to mind my own business, then that's fine. I would just note what happened."

Bernheisel and all other observers travel to various polling stations throughout the election day. Once polling ends, each observer submits a report, and OSCE determines the legitimacy of the election.

"They'll grade it," he said. "A low grade is an election where they say there was fraud, and we don't recognize it. Or they could say that there were some irregularities, but the will of the people triumphed. For a good grade, they would say it was a great election, and democracy was in action."

Bernheisel has seen his fair share of election issues, including intimidation, stuffing the ballot box or carousel voting. In Azerbaijan in 2003, he saw several large men with video cameras taping voters as they entered the polling stations. He said the supervisor said it was a common thing. "Basically what he was doing was intimidating the voters," he said. Bernheisel said there is no foolproof election system, but fraud is more common in countries where elections are a newer phenomenon. Though Bernheisel has spent the last two decades volunteering in the world's poorer countries, he said he does enjoy traveling for leisure as well. While he doesn't keep a tally, he estimates he's been to 65 to 70 countries and visited all continents except Antarctica.

Bernheisel's father was stationed in Germany shortly after World War II, and he and his family were able to see most of western Europe at the time. As an adult, he lived three years in Bolivia, and again was able to travel quite a bit, seeing most of South America.

As he gets older, he isn't slowing down. He and his wife will soon set sail on an Adriatic cruise.

"I want to see the whole world before it's over," he said. "I don't think I'm going to make it, though. The world is too big of a place."

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