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Op-ed

At 60, the Peace Corps needs your support now more than ever | COMMENTARY

On Sept. 22, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed legislation creating the Peace Corps. Over the next six decades, more than 240,000 volunteers have served in 142 countries. Peace Corps volunteers live with and work alongside their local counterparts to build mutual respect and make progress together. We learn the local languages, eat local food and dance local dances. After overseas service, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) bring an extraordinary knowledge of the people and cultures of the world back home — enriching our own country.

The Peace Corps is the embodiment of Kennedy’s famous challenge, to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The original purpose remains, “to promote world peace and friendship” through three basic goals:

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  1. To help interested countries meet their need for trained men and women;
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans;
  3. And to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Unfortunately, all 7,300 volunteers had to evacuate and leave their sites when COVID-19 attacked. They left friends behind and unfinished projects and had to adjust to life back home when they wanted to be at their overseas sites.

My values and perspective on the world were shaped over 50 years ago by living and working with impoverished fishermen on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and by the Peace Corps training I received. We built a school, and we developed a cooperative among the fishermen in five villages enabling them to acquire motors and nets and increase their daily catch. I was a catalyst, but the community did the work. Along the way, I was able to teach literacy and share some health lessons with my friends and neighbors in the village. Like most volunteers, however, I learned far more from these wonderful people than I could ever teach them.

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The culture of Peace Corps service extends far beyond two years of volunteer service overseas. I have always believed the greatest value of the Peace Corps is what RPCVs are able to do when we return home. We bring a unique understanding of and respect for the multiple languages and cultures of the world. RPCVs are corporate executives, respected academics and prominent government leaders — including many diplomats. Tens of thousands of RPCVs teach at every level and bring their enriched life experiences into the classroom.

Most RPCVs continue to serve in one way or another wherever we live and whatever our careers. The National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) helps connect the Peace Corps community and facilitates lifelong service.

Twenty years ago, John Garamendi and I formed a team of five returned volunteers and former staff to help Ethiopia and Eritrea end their brutal border war. They trusted us because we had been Peace Corps Volunteers.

When the fighting stopped, we were invited by the heads of state of both countries to the signing ceremony in Algiers. After the ceremony, the late Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister at the time, wrote to thank us: “Your contribution was indeed invaluable for creating the momentum and the spirit which made this historic achievement possible.” (Mr. Garamendi is now a Member of Congress.)

The next year, another RPCV group had a similar impact on negotiations to help end a brutal civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Other stories of service by RPCVs abound. Liz Fanning, for example, has created CorpsAfrica to give young Africans the opportunity to serve like Peace Corps volunteers in their own countries. As a volunteer in the 1960s, Maureen Orth helped build a school, and she continues to support the school and other projects in Medellin Colombia. Many evacuated volunteers are helping the US deal with the COVID-19 crisis and with hurricane damage. These stories are replicated hundreds of times all over the world.

I chair an advisory council to help the Peace Corps and NPCA adjust to, and thrive in, a changing world. For example, we look for more opportunities for collaboration between the Peace Corps (a government agency and made up of serving volunteers and staff) and NPCA (private nongovernmental organization made up of returned volunteers and staff) for recruitment of new volunteers, particularly for greater diversity. We also seek to develop the capacity to incorporate new technologies into overseas service, possibly connecting current volunteers with RPCVs. More than ever, America needs to support the Peace Corps and embrace its values of service and peace.

Charles F. “Chic” Dambach (chic@dambach.org) is president emeritus of the National Peace Corps Association. He lives in Crownsville.


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