CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — The Peace Corps, works with communities around the globe to find long-term solutions to the world’s most urgent issues. However, as a program that relies on volunteers traveling domestically and internationally, COVID-19 has altered the way the Peace Corps operates. Although this has been a challenging adjustment, the Peace Corps is still making a global impact to serve marginalized and impoverished communities around the world. Throughout COVID-19, the mission has remained the same. To learn more about The Peace Corps, The Borgen Project spoke with Sierra Plato, a Peace Corps Regional Recruiter and Returned Volunteer.
The Mission of the Peace Corps
Plato describes the Peace Corps as, “a federal government agency where we send passionate volunteers to work to serve in one of over 60 different countries around the world.” Volunteers work in one of six different sectors: education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth in development. In a short synopsis, the mission of the Peace Corps promotes “world peace and friendship.” Its three main goals are to help:
- The people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
- Promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.
- Promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.
The Peace Corps accomplishes the goals by making sure it is sending volunteers with a strong sense of cultural awareness and competence. The cultural process, Plato explains, is “the first three months [in a new country]out of the 27-month long commitment is totally dedicated to learning the language, learning how to navigate the culture and then also how to do your job within that cultural context.” By sending passionate volunteers to serve in several different countries, the Peace Corps is able to make a significant impact in marginalized and/or disadvantaged communities.
Volunteers from the Peace Corps live and work among the communities they serve. They’re partnering with local authorities, schools, startup companies and business owners to build long-term, community-based initiatives that address local development objectives across the six sectors mentioned above.
The Impact of the Peace Corps
To fully express the impact the Peace Corps has made in multiple communities across the globe, Plato shared the story of her time serving in Costa Rica. Plato worked as a TEFL teacher (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) between 2016 and 2018. During her time, she worked with a variety of students; however, one elementary student made the biggest impact on her.
This student was transferred to the school where Plato was volunteering. Plato states, “She was bullied at her last school because she has a leg condition where she just did not walk the same as everyone else.” Plato could tell her student’s condition really took a toll on her self-perception and confidence. Plato went on to say, “So not surprisingly, she was very, very hesitant to participate even in her small class [even though]her English was great. But, she was just very shy.”
Believing in her abilities, Plato invited her to the English Festival, one of the Peace Corps’ many initiatives in Costa Rica. Plato describes the English Festival as, “a huge spelling bee, at the institutional level, all the way up to the national level where the students get out there and demonstrate what they have been learning.” Plato’s student was apprehensive about participating. However, through Plato’s preparation and encouragement, her student did really well.
In Plato’s words, “I saw her shine afterward. I saw her classroom participation go up; I saw the activities that we were doing and how she would be front and center. I saw her personality flourish because she found that inspiration. She found that kind of confidence in herself. And that is what I think is really at the core of what we do in the Peace Corps.”
Plato’s story shows the importance of human interaction and relationship building that takes place within the Peace Corps. Not only do volunteers learn these important life skills but the people they interact with feel a significant impact that they are seen, heard and cared for. Although the organization is not currently sending out volunteers due to COVID-19 and travel restrictions, the Peace Corps is still able to make an impact on marginalized and impoverished communities.
COVID-19’s Effect on the Peace Corps
Normally, the Peace Corps staff, domestic and international, is striving to complete the needs of 61 different countries by sending out approximately 7,000 volunteers at any given moment. However, COVID-19 has significantly affected the way it operates.
Plato states that the first step of action the Peace Corps took back in March 2020 was, “to evacuate nearly 7,000 volunteers and trainees who served in these 60 different countries around the world. And so, since that time, we did develop a process to safely return volunteers, including evaluating each post based on the medical security, programmatic, administrative and logistical criteria.”
Also, in October 2020, the Peace Corps launched a virtual service pilot program. Plato describes this program as, “an 11-week pilot program where 45 volunteers donated their time and worked” on a variety of projects about “financial literacy, agribusiness and environmental protection” with different countries or different posts. This was the first phase of the virtual program.
The second phase of the pilot program took place when “evacuated volunteers were collaborating with their counterparts for about approximately five to 15 hours a week for 10 to 12 weeks,” Plato stated. The Peace Corps is still working on phase three of the virtual service pilot program, but it is all coming to fruition in the process.
Recent Peace Corps Efforts During COVID-19
In May 2021, another initiative the Peace Corps launched in response to COVID-19 was a partnership with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). This partnership is the Peace Corps’ second domestic deployment of volunteers within its 60-year history. Plato explains that “They [volunteers]were working with community vaccination centers across the country.” These 158 volunteers went to Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey and Oregon to work on “three-month assignments that were focused on the urgent needs of FEMA.” Essentially, these volunteers were placed in communities that were traditionally underserved. For example, places where vaccination centers were too far of a distance to reach.
Throughout COVID-19, the Peace Corps is still continuing to find creative ways to engage diverse audiences and bring service to those in need. COVID-19 may have changed the way that the Peace Corps operates, but the mission does not change.
– Anna Lovelace