Volunteer extraordinaire won't take no for answer

March 26, 1995|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Correspondent

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.

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