Mention the Peace Corps, and you might get a surprised “Is that still around?” In fact, Peace Corps Volunteers are still serving in 76 countries, and the more than 200,000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who have served since President Kennedy created the organization by executive order on March 1, 1961 continue to serve in their communities, classrooms, nonprofits and government agencies.
In South Florida, Alberto Ibarguen (Venezuela), president of the Knight Foundation; Donna Shalala (Iran), president of the University of Miami; Dee Redwine (Honduras) of Planned Parenthood Global; George Neary of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (West Indies) and Kristen Guskovict (Burkina Faso) of the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture are a few of the RPCVs in leadership positions.
In honor of Peace Corps Week, Feb. 24-March 2, state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a volunteer who served in Senegal, was to present a joint legislative tribute to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of South Florida-The Colombia Project and the Coconut Grove Rotary Club for their collaborative effort to provide microloans to entrepreneurs in Colombia. More than 1,000 loans have been made. Thanks to a $17,650 Rotary International grant, a loan program will open this spring in Barranquilla, Colombia. It will be administered by the local Rotary Club and mentored by The Colombia Project.
To mark the third anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, RPCVSF raised $500 for Miami-based Health Through Walls, which provides medical care for prisoners in Haiti. Marty Mueller (Libya), who was the Peace Corps country director in Haiti, is on the board of HTW.
The RPCVSF Fair Trade Market raises awareness regarding the importance of fair trade at throughout South Florida. During the past nine years, Market organizer, Linda Whitmyre (Malaysia) has purchased $16,000 worth of items from fair-trade companies established by returned volunteers in developing countries. Profits on the sale of those items have been donated to organizations that benefit South Florida, Haiti, Colombia and Guatemala. One of the recipients was the Reading is Fundamental program, administered by Redlands Christian Migrant Association, led by Barbara Mainster, who served in Peru.
In answer to a challenge several years ago by Harve Mogul, president of the Miami-Dade United Way, who served in the Philippines, South Florida volunteers developed more programs to serve the local community. An eight-minute documentary, which premiered this week, showcased one of those programs — the RPCVSF Annual Everglades Outing. It introduces more than 100 underprivileged children to the wonders of the Everglades each year.
Last year, RPCVSF presented its first Service Learning Awards to teachers who incorporate effective service learning programs in their classroom curriculum.
After completing her Peace Corps service in Niger, Virginia Emmons-McNaught helped start Educate Tomorrow, which provides mentoring to help foster children remain in school. The state provides tuition and a living allowance for foster children who remain in school after 18, while those who are not in school are totally on their own. Educate Tomorrow’s mentors encourage these foster kids to stay in school and make wise decisions.
Most returned volunteers are quick to admit they got far more than they gave. Peace Corps service is a tremendous learning experience, and while we worked hard to serve our host countries, our own country is the big winner because we bring all that we learn back home.
My own Peace Corps service gave me experience living in societies where dysfunctional government bureaucracies failed to meet citizens’ needs. During my 25 years of post-Peace Corps government service, I consciously drew on that experience to help agencies avoid the problems I saw overseas.
More directly, corporate America benefits from culturally savvy and language-proficient former Peace Corps volunteers who improve the efficacy of their overseas operations. The State Department and international aid agencies hire RPCVs who are already seasoned in the field.
President Kennedy once said that he hoped returning volunteers would enable America to achieve a more-enlightened foreign policy. It is human nature to fear what is different and unknown. Peace Corps service helps alleviate that fear by introducing Americans to the world so we can find common ground and learn to respect and understand each other. We still have a long way to go, but Peace Corps service nudges us along the right path.
Helene Dudley, Miami