The U.S. Peace Corps turns 60 Monday.
Since its establishment through executive order by President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961, the Peace Corps has sent more than 240,000 volunteers to 141 countries. The organization quickly became an icon of the idealistic 1960s.
The goal was to foster peace and understanding by sending mostly young, college-educated or otherwise experienced Americans to developing countries for two-year stints, helping with education, health, community economic development, agriculture, the environment and youth development.
The idea for the Peace Corps came during the 1960 presidential campaign when Kennedy gave an impromptu speech on the steps of the University of Michigan’s student union on Oct. 14. During the speech, he asked students if they would be willing to serve their country and the cause of peace by volunteering to work in the developing world.
“How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” Kennedy asked.
“On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can. And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past,” he said.
In its first five years the Peace Corps sent over 14,000 volunteers to 55 countries, according to The Washington Post.
Among those were Warren Master and his wife, Karen, of Hobe Sound, Florida.
From January 1966 to July 1967, when the native New Yorkers were 22 and 23, respectively, they were Peace Corps volunteers in Turkey. They arrived just in time to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.
Their first job was to join a Turkish team tasked with establishing a rural tuberculosis control program in and around Ceyhan in Adana province.
“Our job was to work ourselves out of a job as our Turkish counterparts moved into this space,” said Warren.
And it worked.
After six months, they were reassigned to teaching positions in Ankara.
“My day job was primarily teaching English to pre-med students at Hacettepe University,” Warren said. “Meanwhile, we found housing in one of Ankara’s many shantytowns that ringed the nation’s capital.”
Upon returning to the U.S., Warren got a master’s degree in anthropology. He also took a job organizing community action programs in Appalachia and American inner cities. It was work he described as very similar to Peace Corps work.
After that, he became a public servant.
In Ankara, Karen began teaching at a nursery school located in Gulveren.
“This was my first experience with young kids. The school was on the lower floor of a coffee house. There was very little in the way of materials,” she said. “I had to improvise everything.”
In her last year, she taught English at Middle Eastern Technical University.
“At that time in my life, teaching was not really on my radar as a possible professional goal,” she said, adding that she had studied voice for six years.
While theater was her passion, she said her experience in Turkey made her realize she loved teaching, too. She went on to become a drama and English teacher.
“The experience in Turkey allowed me to explore facets of myself I didn’t know existed,” she said. “It exposed me to another country’s culture and language far different from anything I’d known. It was life changing.”
Some of the more recent highlights of the Peace Corps work includes sending 32 volunteers to South Africa as teachers in 1997, the first volunteers to go to that country.
The program was sparked by President Nelson Mandela’s 1994 state visit to the U.S. when he asked then-President Bill Clinton for help addressing social and economic challenges in the country.
In 1995, after Hurricane Luis tore through the Lesser Antilles, the Peace Corps sent volunteers to help rebuild homes. That experience led to the Peace Corps Response program, which provides “short–term, focused, humanitarian service to countries worldwide.”
You can read more about Peace Corps work here.
While it’s common to hear from volunteers that their experiences have had a dramatically positive impact, the work can be dangerous.
According to the Huffington Post, between 2000 and 2009, Peace Corps volunteers reported more than 1,000 incidents of sexual assault and 221 rapes or attempted rapes.
In 2011, three women testified before Congress alleging their claims of rape had not been taken seriously. In 2013, the Peace Corps established an Office of Sexual Assault Risk-Reduction and Response to better mitigate dangers and provide support for victims.
More recently, the coronavirus pandemic has hit the Peace Corps hard.
Last March, concerns about the virus caused it to suspend operations in the more than 60 countries in which it was operating and bring all 7,000 of its volunteers back to the United States.
It is unclear what the Peace Corps’ 61st year will look like, but according to a spokesperson, they are accepting volunteer applications for tentative departures late this year or early next year.
“As the Peace Corps celebrates our 60th anniversary, I am reminded of how far we have come and what an unprecedented time we are in now,” says Acting Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn. “The past 60 years have truly prepared us for this historic moment. During a pandemic that has touched every corner of the globe, it’s clear that we are all in this together.”
Spahn added, “As we look to the next 60 years, I know the Peace Corps will continue to be a community of people — all over the world — willing to do the hard work of promoting peace and friendship.”
Source: Ghana News Agency