This month, the Peace Corps marks 50 years of work across the developing world. It was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy and has been supported by other presidents, including Barack Obama, who has emphasized the need for public service.
This month’s celebrations will recognize the achievements of volunteers past and present.
The group’s regional director for Africa, Dick Day, says even though the mission of the Peace Corps has remained the same over years “of promoting world peace and friendship… there have been changes according to the needs of the communities [where the volunteers] serve.”
Some of that change has been in the education sector.
“There has been some evolution,” says Day, whose office determines the number of volunteers in Africa and provides support for the field offices in the 27 countries where they operate. “We have moved from having essentially nothing but teachers in the classrooms to doing much more teacher training and working with parent-teachers associations.”
In the health field, volunteers continue to provide primary care and support, “but clearly one of the emphases we have had in the last ten to fifteen years has been a heavy focus on HIV/AIDS prevention… particularly working with orphans and vulnerable children.”
The Peace Corps also works to stem the spread of malaria, which continues to claim lives in sub-Saharan Africa. One of the highlights of the celebration will be “a Stamp Out Malaria in Africa initiative that will be rolled out in 25 out of the 27 countries [on the continent where we have a presence].”
The agency also works in partnership with local communities on issues like youth development and training small enterprises in business practices.
Carrying the torch
In remarks to mark the beginning of the celebration, Peace Corps director Aaron Williams said the organization will remain “vibrant for another 50 years.”
He said it will grow and adapt and continue “to carry the torch of President Kennedy’s revolutionary idea and [respond] to President Obama’s call to service.”
To mark the milestone, Peace Corps staff and returned volunteers are taking part in local service projects both in the United States and in Peace Corps host countries.
In Africa, the Peace Corps has sent thousands of volunteers to work in communities on a range of projects, in fields that include agriculture, business and information technology, education, environment and health.
Since its founding, more than 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps in 139 countries. Today, it has more than 8,650 volunteers in 77 countries.