Peace Corps volunteers from the past and present recently came together in Washington to celebrate the agency's 40 years of service. The gathering took place as the Peace Corps gains a renewed sense of mission, following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Inspired by the vision of John F. Kennedy, a spirit of service gave birth to the Peace Corps in 1961. Four decades later, the Bush administration has re-affirmed the importance of the agency by pledging to double the number of volunteers over the next five years. The founding director of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, says one of its core goals - to teach Americans about developing countries - is now more important than ever.
"The message must go out from this conference to all Americans," Mr. Shriver said, "that our relationships with the people of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Eastern Europe are vitally important. We must increase and teach understanding and tolerance before we can hope to achieve world peace."
At least 163,000 volunteers have served in 135 countries since 1961. Volunteers work with local people, many of whom are then inspired to work in public service in their own countries.
The conference highlighted some of the stories of these people whose lives were touched by Peace Corp volunteers. They include Mary Kanya - Swaziland's Ambassador to Washington. She was recognized for teaching science in remote Swazi villages. She says she was inspired by Peace Corps volunteers who left the United States to work in unknown lands.
"Here were people that were prepared to sacrifice their luxury in order to serve the people of Swaziland," he said. "They were going to places where nobody wanted to go and to me I felt, why can't I do the same for my country?"
President Alejandro Toledo of Peru, who was encouraged at an early age by Peace Corps volunteers to pursue higher education, spoke to the conference via satellite. "President Kennedy had an extraordinary vision when he created the Peace Corps to send idealistic and highly motivated Americans to poor countries to find out how it is to live there," he said. "And along the way to transfer the conviction that life could be better."
Current Peace Corps Director, Gaddi Vasquez, says he will build a framework to give more Americans a chance to serve overseas. "The Peace Corps provides an opportunity for Americans to say, I don't just want to be a spectator anymore in helping shape the world, I want to be a participant," he said.
About 7,000 volunteers are serving in 70 countries while 30 more nations are applying to receive volunteers in the future. Last week, volunteers began working in the newest country in the world, East Timor, and will soon be arriving in Azerbaijan and returning to Peru.
Many Americans who worked in the Peace Corps continue a life of public service. The U.S. Congress is home to one senator and six representatives who were volunteers. Senator Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, who served in the Dominican Republic, calls for more international involvement by Americans in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. He says the United States can react by building a fortress around its borders - or by reaching out more than ever to the rest of the world.