Peace Corps: 50 and going strong


April 21st, 2011

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President John F. Kennedy greeting Peace Corps volunteers in 1961 (Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives)

Lincoln, NE – President John F. Kennedy gets credit for creating the Peace Corps, but the idea actually came from a colleague in the Senate, Hubert H. Humphrey. But no matter the brainchild, the Peace Corps remains an American icon of service. And during its 50th anniversary year, Peace Corps volunteers continue to heed Kennedy’s call.

Steven Easterby lives on a tiny island in the Atlantic. Surrounded by mountains and hilltops, the Omaha-native helps manage an African national park in Cape Verde 350 miles off the west coasts of Mauritania and Senegal.

An Omaha Creighton Prep graduate, Easterby is one of 67 Nebraskans currently serving the Peace Corps. Since 1961, there have been nearly 1,260 Nebraska volunteers.

“I thought that [the Peace Corps] would be the perfect way for me to get to know the world and also satisfy my desire to contribute to social justice,” Easterby said.

Like the 200,000 other Americans since 1961 who have chosen to serve, Easterby said he knew when he was a high school sophomore he wanted to join the Peace Corps. So at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, he majored in Natural Resources Recreation and Tourism with a minor in Environmental Communications.

“(The Peace Corps) is a life-changing experience. You really learn a lot about yourself,” he said. “Any Peace Corps volunteer you meet will say they’re a completely different person after their service than they were before. Something in you changes and I think it’s for the better.” .”

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Kelly McCormack, press relations specialist for the Peace Corps, said since its inception, the Peace Corps aims to promote world peace and friendship.

“How we achieve world peace and friendship is giving countries the development workers on the field that they need to help them reach their goals,” she said.

The Peace Corps is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011. One of the goals of the independent U.S. government agency is to help people of other countries gain a better understanding of Americans and its multicultural society. One way it accomplishes that mission is to provide volunteers for more than 75 countries that request assistance in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, the Pacific Islands, and the Middle East.

McCormack said approximately 4,000 new volunteers are needed each year to join the nearly 8,000 who work in a variety of areas including health, education, agriculture and the environment. Length of service is 27 months which includes three months of in-country training. That training provides language, cross-cultural, and health and safety skills.

McCormack said the training is critical because each placement is so different.

“Our country is a little more developed,” said Easterby talking about Cape Verde. “It’s recently been promoted to a second world-developing country. I have electricity almost every day.”

Valerie Flynn, Peace Corps recruiter for the Dallas region, said it takes about a year to go through the application process. There are some considerations: you must be at least 18 years old, in good health and a U.S. citizen. Volunteers also have a variety of skills, work experience and education. Nearly 90 percent of all applicants have at least an undergraduate degree and fall into the 27-32 year old age group.

“When you apply what we’re going to do is look at your skill set,” she said. “We’re going to look at your work experience, your volunteer experience, your life experience, your degree. And then we’re going to look at where you going to be the best asset to a community. And which community is going to be the best asset to you.”

President John Kennedy gets credit for the public initiative but it was fellow U.S. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey from Minnesota who first introduced legislation in 1957. That bill called for the formation of the Peace Corps. Humphrey would again propose the Peace Corps in 1960 and later as Majority Whip of the Senate lead the fight to enact the program which Kennedy proposed.

The number of Peace Corps volunteers hit an all-time high in 1966 with more than 15,000. This year the number of volunteers is about half that, but with more serving now than in the last 40 years.

One Response

  1. Timmy says:

    Here’s a scary story from a former volunteer:

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