The Peace Corps: Long time passing After 30 years, where have all those young idealists gone?


AS THE PEACE Corps marks its 30th anniversary this year, it is in a very real sense looking for its lost youth.

Of the 125,000 mostly young Americans who served overseas, fewer than a third are accounted for today. They returned home, moved on and over time lost contact with their fellow volunteers.

The National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, a sort of alumni clearinghouse, is hoping to locate these "lost volunteers" and, in the process, rejuvenate among them here at home the spirit of giving that once sent them into the developing world.

First on the council's list of tactics is the 30th Peace Corps Anniversary Conference, to be held in Washington this weekend. Up to 5,000 former volunteers are expected to attend the four-day event, which begins Thursday and will be held on the Mall adjacent to the National Air and Space Museum.

The Peace Corps was established in March 1961 by John F. Kennedy as a government agency that would send trained volunteers to developing countries to improve their standard of living and share American cultural values. Its earliest participants came of age in the decade of idealism and social activism, young college grads who had grown up believing their highest calling was to serve their less fortunate fellow man.

Since 1961, volunteers have been dispatched to more than 100 nations, from Antigua to Zimbabwe, and most recently behind the Iron Curtain. From Maryland alone, more than 2,200 have taken part in missions ranging from teaching English to growing rice, and more recently, to building computer programs.

Peace Corps membership reached its peak in 1964, when 13,000 people were enrolled at one time, says Chris Davis, a spokesman at the agency's Washington headquarters. By 1986, the number of volunteers had dwindled to 3,000.

During the last five years, an increased emphasis on recruiting minorities and retirees has brought enrollment back up to 6,000 today. In its early days, Peace Corps minority membership was about 5 or 6 percent, says Davis. "Today, it's about 10 percent."

The Peace Corps is now operating in 90 countries, a record for simultaneous service that is generally attributed to the political changes in Eastern Europe. Most recently volunteers have moved into Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Mongolia.

The types of assignment haven't changed much over the years, says Davis. But they have expanded into technical and business-oriented areas, such as accounting, marketing and computer science, a popular field in Poland today.

There was a time in the 1970s when some people wondered if the Peace Corps still existed, says Lyn Gray, executive director of the council. She says many agency files, including information about former volunteers, were lost in the transition during the early 1970s when the Nixon administration put the Peace Corps in ACTION, an umbrella group for volunteer agencies from which Peace Corps later separated.

L "It was kind of a black era for the Peace Corps," Gray says.

Contact between the agency and its membership has never really recovered.

As a result, it has become an ongoing project of the council, its Maryland and other local affiliates around the country and Peace Corps headquarters to find current addresses for the 80,000 former volunteers for whom only a name, country and date of entry are on record.

Conference organizers have adopted a theme of "Continuing to Serve." They want to encourage returned volunteers to take the lead in domestic volunteerism today.

For more information about the convention or about the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, call (202) 462-5938.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad