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US Peace Corps in Thailand - 2001-09-19

The Peace Corps is marking its 40th anniversary. Countless stories are being re-told about people reaching across language and cultural barriers to build friendships and try to improve the lives of others. Those involved with the Peace Corps say some things have changed over the years, but many basic things remain the same.

Emily Benfer is a Peace Corps volunteer who arrived in Thailand seven months ago. She works in Mae Charim, a town of 3,000 people in northern Thailand, near the border with Laos.

Ms. Benfer says at first her senses were overloaded with colors, sounds, and smells. "My village runs from one long road and extends into ... just mountains, waves of mountains that keep overlapping each other," she says. "And they're full of rice and corn fields."

Ms. Benfer says when she arrived her house was empty. She says she thought she would be spending her first night on the floor until what she calls a parade of neighbors came in with furniture and cooking and cleaning supplies.

Ms. Benfer's experience is similar to that of thousands of other volunteers who have lived and worked in Thailand over nearly 40 years.

The director of the Peace Corps program in Thailand, Roger Harmon, says the experiences of each volunteer are individual and vary, but the goals of the Peace Corps have not changed. "We are still attempting to meet manpower needs of individual countries as requested by those countries," he says. "The second goal is for volunteers to get to know other cultures, to develop understanding of other cultures. And the third goal is for people of Thailand or other countries to learn about Americans and about America. Forty years, the same three goals."

But some things have changed. In Thailand, for example, there are currently 47 Peace Corps volunteers, down from a peak of more than 200. Mr. Harmon also notes that the profile of the Peace Corps volunteer has evolved. In his most recent group, he says, nearly one-third were over 50 years old and two-thirds were women.

Mr. Harmon says many of the needs are the same and as a result, the Peace Corps still has programs in health, environment, water, sanitation, and teaching English. But in Thailand, he says these programs have been combined into a single project of education-and-community outreach. "We're working with teachers, helping them develop greater ability in student-centered teaching, participatory learning, integrating their curricula and also bringing the local aspects of life into the curriculum," he says.

Volunteer Emily Benfer has found teachers in her community who are open to new methods and works with them, visiting their schools every few weeks and introducing new methods, like teaching through games, activities and field trips.

But Ms. Benfer also has seen that the people in this impoverished, rural area face other obstacles to obtaining an education. "Another need I saw was poverty. A great deal of malnutrition," she says. "So we've tried to respond to that as well, working one-on-one with teachers, implementing projects such as "soy milk every day" for children. Or, right now we're working on eco-tourism, trying to raise local income and develop scholarship funds. "

There is a national park nearby with mountain trails, white-water rafting and facilities for visitors. Ms. Benfer says as the villagers focused on the resources in their area, they came up with their own ideas to build on the tourism trade. "Women's groups who make Thai desserts wanted to teach foreigners how to do that. They wanted to welcome people into their homes so they could get a home-staying experience," she says. "The schools wanted to get involved by doing translations, learning how to speak to tourists better, so not only would their English improve, which is almost crucial for them to go on in school, they would have a cultural exchange with people."

Country Director Roger Harmon says in 40 years the Peace Corps has learned a lot, especially in language and cross-cultural training. But he says probably the greatest learning is at the individual level. "Every volunteer that comes has a tremendous story to tell, about themselves, a story about other people, other cultures," he says. "And they do take that home."

In addition, friendships and memories remain in the communities where the volunteers serve. And, as is happening during this anniversary, many former volunteers return for emotional reunions.