Volunteer extraordinaire won't take no for answer


FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- When the paper-pushers at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow delayed visas for some Russian students a couple of months ago, Sonja Rothstein did what seemed perfectly natural to her: She called Jimmy Carter.

She got her visas.

When USAir said her Russian visitors' tickets could not be exchanged or refunded, Mrs. Rothstein talked airline officials into rescheduling a couple of dozen tickets -- three times.

And when some Russian acquaintances suggested that an orphanage could use clothing, she brought over half a ton, plus ** medical supplies, plus stuffed animals, plus a VCR -- hooked to a television she bullied the local Russian government into buying.

"Sometimes," she said the other day, "you just have to assert yourself."

It's because Mrs. Rothstein is so good at asserting herself -- a veritable assertion artist -- that 14 Russian high school students and six teachers are visiting North Carolina.

They are spending two weeks with American families only because Sonja Rothstein -- doctor's wife, mother of two, former planning board member and volunteer extraordinaire -- wept and cajoled and raised thousands of dollars to pay for it.

Then she sweet-talked and argued her way through the red tape.

Since she first visited the depressed Russian industrial city of Ivanovo two years ago, Mrs. Rothstein has raised more than $73,000 to pay for an exchange program of her own creation.

So far, two groups of Russian students have visited Fayetteville, and a delegation of Fayetteville teen-agers traveled to Ivanovo last spring.

In August, she arranged for North Carolina doctors to visit the city.

Mrs. Rothstein is the quintessential volunteer, the kind of person who refuses to hear the word "no," who believes people are ever-generous, who works hard and expects other people to do the same.

Hobbled but welcoming

Sonja Rothstein was limping. The Russians were on their way to Fayetteville City Hall, where the mayor would make them honorary citizens, and Mrs. Rothstein was walking with a cane. Rheumatoid arthritis had flared up, tearing at a tendon in one ankle. Surgery will have to wait until the Russians leave.

Their tour began a week ago, when 20 jet-lagged Russian visitors arrived at Raleigh-Durham airport. The Rothsteins -- Sonja and her husband, Dr. Manfred Rothstein, a Pikesville native and Johns Hopkins University alumnus -- drove two hours to greet them.

When the Rothsteins got home at 12:45 a.m., they found 50 people -- the Russians and their American host families -- filling the living room, strumming guitars and singing Beatles songs. The Rothsteins got to bed at 5 a.m.

Two days later, she said the Russians already had eaten 30 pounds of bananas plus uncalculated amounts of oranges and apples, fruits considered luxuries in Ivanovo.

"At the store, I said, 'By the way, I've got 20 Russian kids coming here. You've got to give me a better price.' And they did."

Demands, with honey

Mrs. Rothstein, talking fast, with a smile and a honeyed Carolina accent, seems always to be making demands.

But people seem always to smile back and go along with her.

Donald Dixon, principal of Fayetteville's Vanstory Hills Elementary School, says he certainly never says no to Sonja Rothstein.

"I do anything she tells me to do," Mr. Dixon said on the morning that the Russian students came to his school to perform traditional folk songs and dances. "She just has such a nice way about her.' "

Swayn Hamlet, a real estate developer, became a sponsor of the Russian exchange program after he heard Mrs. Rothstein speak to the Rotary Club. "She's just this ol' gal in the middle of nowhere who got us involved," he said.

"I just got excited listening to her talk about it. I came back to the office and wrote a fat check and put it in an envelope and stuck it through the door of the doctor's office."

At Fayetteville's City Hall, Brenda Barbour, administrative secretary to the mayor, had a similar story: "You just can't help to get caught up in her enthusiasm. Sonja will call and say, 'This is what we're doing. This is what I'd like.' And we help."

Mrs. Rothstein concedes she's not one for begging.

"I don't ask how much they can give me," she says. "I tell them how much they can give me."

Mrs. Rothstein, who will be 47 Tuesday, has done volunteer work all her life, while raising her daughters and helping manage her husband's dermatology practice. But the Russian exchange has been an obsession for two years, since she and Dr. Rothstein happened to join a tour group that visited Ivanovo.

The American travelers stayed in the modest homes of local families -- people so giving, Mrs. Rothstein says, that they'd feed the Americans first to be sure that their visitors had enough to eat.

"These are people who are proud, who will share whatever they have with you," she says. "And they deserve some help."

Four days later, Mrs. Rothstein said, she was promising her hostess that she would bring her to America.

But the idea that these Russians might visit America was ridiculous, said Marina Bolshakova, who met the Rothsteins in Ivanovo.

"Even the intelligentsia, the doctors and teachers, could work all their lives and could not afford such a trip," Mrs. Bolshakova said. "It cannot be done. But Sonja said, 'It can be done. I will raise the money.' And she did."

As the train pulled out of Ivanovo station back in March 1993, Sonja Rothstein opened a paperback book and began jotting ideas inside the back cover.

thought, 'Well, I'll just call the businesses I know and see what happens.' "

Here's what happened: A year later, in March 1994, the first Russian high school students came to Fayetteville. Mrs. Rothstein, Dr. Rothstein and the people she managed to convert to the cause had raised $45,000 that first year to pay for the trip plus a return visit by American students.

"This is important," she says of the program. "The point is to show them that we're all the same. Because it's this generation that's going to make the difference if we're going to live in peace."

The two-week schedule Mrs. Rothstein has arranged takes the students to schools, where they perform Russian songs and dances. The Russians tour a hospital and a bank. They visit a magnetic imaging center, watch computers at a metal fabrication plant. They dance on the floor of the state Senate, walk through the military installation at Fort Bragg and spend a day at the beach -- the first time many of them have seen an ocean.

Chasing the governor

On Thursday, at the state Capitol, Mrs. Rothstein saw the governor's auto pulling away from the mansion. "Run for the car!" she ordered the students, and in a flash Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. found his vehicle surrounded by teen-agers in Russian costumes.

A security guard in the front seat was reaching for his gun when the governor recognized Mrs. Rothstein, she said. Mr. Hunt got out of the car to greet the visitors and was dragged into a Russian folk dance. "It was great," Mrs. Rothstein said.

Russian-American exchanges are no longer rare. Alumni of Baltimore's Patterson High School brought 20 students to the United States last winter. But it's unusual to find a program that's organized by an individual instead of an organization.

Does anyone say no to her? "Oh, I guess," she says. "But they're so few."

This year and last, Mrs. Rothstein called a local businessman to say she'd like the Russians to tour his factory. He agreed -- and also offered his beach house to the visitors for a day.

She got gallons of free soda from the local Pepsi distributor and free jeans from the manager of J. C. Penney. Fast-food restaurants provide free lunches.

She even thought to line up two doctors to be on call, pro bono, should one of the Russians fall ill during the Fayetteville visit. And on Day Three, 15-year-old Kostya Gusarov developed a cough, a pain in his chest and a 102-degree fever.

Mrs. Rothstein pulled him off the tour and hauled him downtown, to the office of Dr. Jorge Franco. She bypassed the crowded waiting room and steered Kostya down the hallway and through a back door into the medical suite.

Within moments, Dr. Franco was diagnosing Kostya's illness as bronchitis and an inflamed throat. Ten minutes later, the boy was on his way back to the Rothstein residence with antibiotics, Tylenol and cough syrup.

Mrs. Rothstein fed him chicken soup.

This is a snapshot of the interior of the Rothsteins' sprawling French provincial home, built on a blossoming lake shore.

On the sun porch, a jovial Russian general, and his wife, a teacher of English, are sipping coffee and playing with Sabra, a gray toy poodle who sports a green ribbon on her forehead.

Tatiana, the Russian high school senior who has been living with the Rothsteins for the past year, is wandering through the house chatting with Dana, the Rothsteins' younger daughter, who is also a high school senior. Nitza, the older Rothstein daughter, is away at Duke University.

Kostya, still feverish, is being dosed with Tylenol. Seriozha, another Russian visitor, is helping himself to a slice of chocolate cake. A casserole is defrosting on the counter.

Mrs. Rothstein, amid all the activity, is trying to keep off her bad ankle.

Looking for spies

Major Gen. Boris Bolshakov is on the tour because his wife, Marina, happened to meet Mrs. Rothstein in Ivanovo two years ago. The general is with the Russian Federal Counterintelligence Service, which, he says with a grin, used to be part of the dreaded KGB.

Is he a spy?

"No," he says with a laugh. "No. I look for spies."

In the Rothsteins' two-car garage, 10 old suitcases line one wall. Another half-dozen sit in the family room, alongside scores of bags and cartons filled with donated clothing and toothbrushes, office supplies, Band-Aids and toiletries.

All of it goes back to Ivanovo in the old suitcases that the Rothsteins have collected.

"You find people like Sonja everywhere," said Carol Baldwin, marketing director of Fayetteville's Highsmith-Rainey Memorial Hospital, "You just ask and ask and ask them to help you out."

Restaurant visit

It was the second day of the visit, and the Russians and their American host families were in a Fayetteville restaurant. Teen-agers were hopping from table to table as pizzas and Cokes came from the kitchen.

People were singing and clapping.

Amid the noise, Mrs. Rothstein seemed momentarily dazed by the hubbub. Then, asked if she'd be organizing another Russian visit next year, she rolled her eyes. "Well, we'll see," she said.

But the next day, with the sun shining and the smiling Russians congregating at Terry Sanford Senior High School to spend the day, Mrs. Rothstein was her optimistic self.

"Manny and I got in bed last night -- it was 1:30 -- and I said, 'Manny, you know this is not going to stop. There are too many people supporting it. I'm going to have to do it again next year.' "

Dr. Rothstein smiled at his wife. "If that's what you want," he said.

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