WILLIAMSTOWN, Massachusetts — The Peace Corps began as a pilot program during the Kennedy Administration and has transformed into the United States’s preeminent international service organization. With over 7,000 volunteers in 65 host countries, Peace Corps representatives focus on making sustainable changes, not only for nations in need, but also for the U.S. by bringing home their experiences.
During his 1960 presidential campaign, Senator John F. Kennedy stood on the steps of the University of Michigan Union at 2:00 a.m. and made a last-minute speech, calling the students to commit two years in the service of a developing country.
Mere weeks after his inauguration, President Kennedy signed an executive order, establishing the Peace Corps on a temporary basis. Following the creation of the Peace Corps, Congress issued a mandate, urging Peace Corps volunteers to “promote world peace and friendship.”
This 53-year-old mission statement from Congress is still reflected in the goals of the Peace Corps today.
The Peace Corps operates with three main objectives: (1) To help the people of developing countries by meeting their need for trained men and women, (2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served, and (3) to help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.
The Peace Corps sends its trained volunteers to live for two years in countries that request assistance. In 2013, Africa received the most assistance from the Peace Corps, hosting 46% of the total volunteers. Latin America was the second most visited region, with 20% of volunteers.
Volunteers are provided with housing and a living stipend to cover food and incidentals. They live alongside the people they serve, working with governments, schools, communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Peace Corps representatives today are most commonly female, with men making up only 37 percent of the volunteer body. Peace Corps volunteers are largely unmarried (93 percent) and young. The average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28, and only 8 percent of representatives are older than 50.
Although the majority of Peace Corps volunteers are white, the organization has become significantly more diverse in recent years. The percentage of racial and ethnic minorities serving as volunteers in the Peace Corps jumped to 24 percent in 2013.
Serving in the Peace Corps is not without its dangers. A total of 296 volunteers have died in the history of the organization.
Although serving in the Peace Corps has become relatively safer over the years, the organization has recently received scrutiny for a series of medical missteps.
In 2009, both Kate Puzey in Benin and an additional Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco were murdered. In February of 2013, 23-year-old Nick Castle died from a gastrointestinal illness after a Peace Corps doctor missed signs of the serious illness.
These tragic losses have prompted Carrie Hessler-Radelet, a former Peace Corps volunteer and current director of the agency, to spearhead a re-examination of organization operations like volunteer training, health care and recruitment, beginning in 2010.
According to Hessler-Radlet, the Peace Corps is currently experiencing “a period of incredible, intense reflection and action.”
Part of this reform is the enhancement of care given to Peace Corps volunteers overseas. Medical professionals are now installed in host countries after meeting credentials set by the Peace Corps medical staff in Washington. Peace Corps volunteers who have complaints about medical care can also call the recently established confidential hotline.
Despite the safety challenges involved with sending thousands of volunteers to developing nations, the Peace Corps has experienced tremendous successes at home and abroad.
These triumphs are difficult to quantify, but the volunteers that return home from the Peace Corps make valuable contributions to their communities, from becoming Senators and Congressmen to educators and leaders. USAID, the State Department and the vast majority of NGOs all have former Peace Corps volunteers on their staff.
Peace Corps volunteers undoubtedly contribute to nations’ social and economic development. Tens of thousands of community projects are completed in host countries each year.
The Peace Corps has provided “decades of patient work at the grassroots level, helping people devise solutions tailored to their particular culture, environment and priorities,” said former volunteer Don Boekelheide.
Perhaps the most telling reflection of the agency is the response from the volunteers themselves. In a survey conducted by Peter D. Hard Research Associates, of more than 11,000 returned Peace Corps volunteers, 98 percent would recommend the experience to their children or grandchildren.
– Grace Flaherty