News / USA

At 50, US Peace Corps Still Draws Volunteers

President John F. Kennedy gives a personal farewell message to Peace Corps volunteers in the White House Rose Garden August 28, 1961, before their departure the following day for assignments in Africa
President John F. Kennedy gives a personal farewell message to Peace Corps volunteers in the White House Rose Garden August 28, 1961, before their departure the following day for assignments in Africa

Alex Gordon volunteered in the Peace Corps in the early 1990s. He has a box full of keepsakes from the more than two years he spent building a rural school in Paraguay.

“Yeah it brings back a whole lot of memories,” he admits.

Gordon says volunteering in the Peace Corps is about more than doing good in the world.

“It gives you the confidence that you can really do anything,” he explains.

Like volunteering again. Two decades, Gordon is rejoining for another stint and this time he will go to Liberia.

President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961. He told new volunteers on the South Lawn of the White House that America’s reputation in the countries they were going to would depend to a large extent on them.

“And if you can impress them with your commitment, to freedom, to the advancement of the interests of people everywhere, to your pride in your country and its best traditions, and what it stands for, the influence may be far-reaching,” Kennedy said.

Since then, more than 200,000 volunteers have worked in countries all over the world.

One of those was Aaron Williams, who is now the Peace Corps director.

“Everywhere I go, Jerome, I find that the leadership met a Peace Corps volunteer many, many years ago and that had a really positive impact, a transformative experience in their lives - prime ministers, presidents, cabinet officials, leaders of large companies in the countries where we serve,” Williams notes.


About the volunteers

  • Over 200,000 Americans have served
  • 8,655 current volunteers/trainees
  • 60% women, 40% men
    19% minorities 7% over 50

Peace Corps supporters say it furthers America’s foreign policy goals at an infinitesimal cost compared to the U.S. military budget. But President Barack Obama has not kept a campaign promise to double the organization's size and Congress is proposing tens of millions of dollars in cuts.

Still new volunteers keep signing up. Supriyah Shah is a student at George Washington University where she works in local community service while waiting for her posting.

She says recent American media reports about the rape and murder of a volunteer in West Africa don’t scare her.

“It’s kind of dangerous to be a woman anywhere,” she says.

Supriyah's friend Matt Francolino is also a new volunteer. He spent last summer living much like he will in the Peace Corps - in a rural village in West Africa, with no electricity or running water.
“It was the best two months of my entire life!" he exclaims. "And I wondered to myself how is that possible? I didn’t have my cell phone, no computer access, and I realized there were so many more important things that I was looking for in life.”

Volunteers say living with families in those villages is part of what makes the Peace Corp different from other humanitarian organizations - and say they take away at least as much from the experience as they give.

Peace Corps Timeline

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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