The Peace Corps, which has many ties to Wisconsin and the Midwest, celebrates its 45th birthday March 1.
Good to the Corps
"And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
This famous phrase is from the inaugural address delivered on the steps of the Capitol by President John F. Kennedy on a snowy January 20th in 1961. But he'd issued his challenge several months earlier, during the presidential campaign. On October 14, 1960, then-Senator Kennedy arrived considerably behind schedule for a rally at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was 2 a.m., but a large crowd of students had waited to hear the candidate and he didn't disappoint them.
He said, "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? 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 to 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."
John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th President of the United States in November 1960, and one of his first executive orders established the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, with Sargent Shriver as its first director. Fifty-one new recruits left for Ghana after a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden on August 28 of that same year. I started my own Peace Corps service some 34 years later, and next month the Peace Corps celebrates its 45-year anniversary.
The Peace Corps had inspiration from a number of progressive sources. It has been said that it was a natural successor to Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC; this time sending volunteers abroad.
Harris Wofford, in the early 1950s, helped set up the International Development Placement Association, which sent a small number of college graduates to teach and do community development work in the Third World. Sargent Shriver suggested an adventurous plan to President Eisenhower for sending action teams into Asia, Africa and Latin America, saying, "They would offer their services at a grassroots level and work directly with the people," but Eisenhower wasn't interested.
Wisconsin's own Congressman Henry Reuss and his friend and colleague Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota were also instrumental in proposing the idea in the ‘50s. Reuss wrote about his "Point Four Youth Corps," and a Senate bill introduced by Humphrey in June 1960 was the first to use the term "Peace Corps."
In the 45 years since that March 1, more than 182,000 Americans have served their nation and the world in Peace Corps service in 138 different host countries. They have been school teachers and public health workers, biologists and economists, small business entrepreneurs and farmers, information technologists and environmentalists. They all had some skill that they could share with people who needed them.
The Peace Corps has three goals: First, to serve those in less developed countries by providing trained volunteers to assist them in helping themselves. Second, to teach people in those countries about us, about the United States we cherish, about our ideals, our generosity and our caring. And third, to return home and teach our fellow Americans about the rest of the world, not about the best tourist hotels, beaches and shopping meccas, but about the real people we share the planet with, their customs, their lives and their aspirations.
The Peace Corps' original slogan is still appropriate: "The toughest job you'll ever love." Volunteers live with the people they're helping, sharing their happiness and their hardships, their food and their homes. It isn't always comfortable. In fact, it's seldom comfortable! But it is rewarding and it is very satisfying.
The benefits of Peace Corps service are many, but they aren't monetary. Volunteers are given a modest living allowance while in service, enough to get by but not enough to make them appear like "rich Americans"! Then, a sum is given to every volunteer at close of service, a small amount to assist in getting re-acclimated to "civilian life."
Then too, returned Peace Corps volunteers are much sought after for positions in both government and private business that call for global knowledge, so the experience can be very valuable for future plans. A term of Peace Corps service looks terrific on a resume.
Requirements for the Peace Corps vary. A college education is usually a prerequisite, but, especially for older applicants, experience in some critical field may be even more important. Check with the Peace Corps recruiter for more information.
Most volunteers are new college and university graduates, but Americans of all ages are welcomed into the Peace Corps. Many will remember President Jimmy Carter's mother, "Miss Lillian," who entered Peace Corps service at age 68 and spent two years working in a leper colony in India. There are many jobs for which an older volunteer is particularly suited, and they are eagerly recruited.
The Peace Corps is always looking for people who are up to the challenge, who are ready to volunteer to answer President Kennedy's call. Could that be you? Life is calling. How far will you go?
February 28, 2006
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John Smart lives in Park Falls, is a member of the Wisconsin Governor's Commission on the United Nations, the board of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio's Ideas Network.