MOBILE, ALA. -- It began with a chance meeting at a medical convention. Nurtured by love and incredible dedication, it now has turned this Gulf Coast city into the greatest single source of volunteer English teachers for the people of liberated Czechoslovakia. The tale I learned while covering the National Governors' Association convention here is an outstanding example of what Americans can do to assist the democratic revolution in Eastern Europe.
The story has an unlikely setting. I found Ann Gardner, the slim, soft-spoken president of Education for Democracy/U.S.A. Incorporated, in a cramped, two-room office, behind what was once the altar screen in the converted chapel of a former Catholic hospital, now part of the University of South Alabama medical school, where her husband, William, heads the pathology department.
In the mid-'80s, Dr. Gardner met a young scientist from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, at a medical convention. In 1987, he arranged for Pavol Demes to work for a year at the Mobile medical center while living in the Gardners' home.
After Czechoslovakia's ''velvet revolution'' ousted the communists last autumn, Demes found himself a high official of Slovakia's Department of Education. In January of this year, he called the Gardners. Could they suggest any volunteers for a program that the expatriate Czechoslovak community in Toronto had launched to provide English teachers to a nation whose Communist masters had discouraged study of our language for 40 years?
That was all the impetus Ann Gardner needed. She contacted the head of the Toronto program, invited him to Mobile and decided it was feasible to set up a parallel project here. Coverage in the local media produced calls from 90 people. The first two volunteers -- a woman paralegal and a grandmother of Slovak ancestry -- left for their assignments on March 1.
In the five months since, 156 more have followed, and the pace is increasing steadily. As word has spread, the two phone lines in the makeshift office have been overwhelmed, and calls come every night to the Gardner home. ''People are determined to help,'' she said. ''One night I heard my husband saying, 'Your son is in Spain, and he got my wife's phone number and he wants to know if he can go straight to Czechoslovakia?' I began to feel as if my name were on bathroom walls: 'For a good time, call Ann Gardner.' ''
The remarkable thing is that all this is being done with volunteered funds and energy. Each teacher pays his or her own travel expenses (at discounted rates, negotiated by a Mobile travel agency) and carries his own instructional materials. Volunteers receive housing (in dorms or private homes) and meals from their host institutions and $30 a month for incidentals. The Gardners have financed the overhead costs of the operation, and the offices in Prague, Bratislava and here are staffed entirely by volunteers.
Already Gardner has sent people from 33 states to join more than 40 Mobilians in Czechoslovak schools. Initially, Gardner accepted volunteers for as short as two months and required only that they be in good health and have a good command of English. Now the applications are so plentiful that she is setting a four-month minimum for service and giving priority to those with teaching experience, to university graduates and upperclassmen and to people with business or computer skills, which are greatly in demand. At least 160 will be in place for the fall semester.
The Mobile volunteers have ranged in age from 19 to 72 -- among them three members of a Channel 10 television crew who did an early story on the project. They are assigned by Demes' agency in Bratislava and a parallel office in Prague; most are in universities. They teach about 20 hours a week, mainly imparting conversational English skills to those with at least a rudimentary ability to read the language.
Tutoring arrangements are frequent; one volunteer is helping an architect who is also an influential member of parliament. Others spend their free time assisting younger students and fledgling local businesses.
Letters from the Mobilians speak of the ''life-changing experience'' the volunteer effort has been for them, of being ''showered with flowers, cakes, cookies ... invitations to dinner every night of the week.''
The host institutions are equally enthusiastic, rating the teachers highly on dedication and effectiveness. Only four of the volunteers have left early or been called home without fulfilling their commitments, and many have extended their tours.
Gardner said that when she paid a brief visit to some of the first volunteer-taught classes last spring, ''I would ask the students what improvements we could make in the program. And the response would always leave me in tears. They would say, 'Please, please send more teachers.' ''
(Gardner requests that volunteers or those interested in establishing similar programs write her at P.O. Box 405l4, Mobile, Ala., 36640-0514, rather than phone.)