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Peace Corps: Still A Transforming Experience

Since 1961, hundreds of thousands of young Americans have been sent around the world - an army, not of soldiers, but of teachers, community organizers and friends. The volunteers of the Peace Corps are still making a difference in lives and attitudes - and not just in the communities they're trying to help.

Ellen Hiltebrand became a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1990s, at the age of 22. Fresh from college, she left behind a familiar and comfortable life in her family's house in the southern United States and moved to a mud hut in a remote Guatemalan village. "I wanted to travel. I wanted to see parts of the world that I perhaps wouldn't be able to access on my own," Hiltebrand says. "I also wanted to learn a foreign language."

Hiltebrand's mission was to set up youth groups. But when she arrived in Guatemala, she says, her assignment changed.

"I ended up in such rural areas where children couldn't write their names, where they were only in schools for an hour or 2 hours a day, sometimes, and implementing youth groups wasn't necessarily the thing they needed the most," she recalls. "So I ended up filling in for teachers who were not able to get to the schools. At one point, I moved to a mountain community because no one could get to the children there to teach them."

To live in such remote and isolated areas, Hiltebrand had to be part of the community, closely interacting with her neighbors, especially the women. "I had needs that I couldn't meet," she says. "I didn't know how to cook over an open fire. I didn't even know how to start a fire. They kind of taught me those kind of things that I needed to know."

And in return, she shared with them her own knowledge and skills, "different planting techniques that would yield a larger crop with their vegetables, and certain very remedial medical procedures that would assist sick children, things like that."

She left Guatamala a changed woman. In her book, When I Was Elena, Ellen Hiltebrand recounts the impact of the 2 years she spent as a Peace Corps volunteer. "I discovered a strength of character I hadn't realized that I had in myself," she says. "I think what it has given me is an opportunity to look at potential adversity in my life in a somewhat more lighthearted manner. I know that I can handle whatever comes at me."

Jody Olsen had a similar transformation when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia in the mid-1960s. "Speaking for myself, it changed a lot of my thinking," she says. "But most importantly, I feel, it also changed how I see any new situation. I try to respect whomever is talking and hear and feel that particular point of view. And I'm hopefully a better citizen here because I try to listen, understand different points of view and honor those points of view."

Like many Peace Corps veterans, Jody Olsen remained in public service. She is now serving as Peace Corps Deputy Director. She says, though the program was the brainchild of President John F. Kennedy, the youthful enthusiasm of the volunteers was, really, what brought this idea to life in 1961… and has kept it going.

"Since that time, there have been 180,000 Americans who have committed 2 years of service in about 138 countries around the world," she says. "This year, at the 45 year point, we have the highest number of volunteers serving that we've had in 30 years. We have 7810 volunteers in 75 countries."

In evaluating her service -and that of her colleagues'- as Peace Corps volunteers, Ellen Hiltebrand says though it was challenging, it was also rewarding. "What it does is it just lets Americans be Americans, it allows you to be a neighbor, a friend, an assistant, a guide to people in other countries," she explains. "I like to think that the best thing I provided to Guatemalans during my Peace Corps service was a true and well-rounded picture of an actual American, not a Hollywood marque image. Not a CNN image of Americans in camouflage in a country that's not theirs, but just a woman who cared about their families and loved their children, who had hopes and fears that were very similar to their own."

As it marks its 45th anniversary, the Peace Corps continues to offer Americans the opportunity to build bridges of respect and understanding between America and the world.