When President John F. Kennedy gave his inaugural speech over 50 years ago, he asked Americans to do something they had never been asked to do before. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
When the country did ask that question, Kennedy replied with the formation of the Peace Corps.
By May of 1961, Kennedy was sending letters of appreciation to the thousands of enthusiastic volunteers who responded. Now 50 years old, the Peace Corps remains one of the few programs out of the New Frontier days of Kennedy that still draws thousands of volunteers to communities around the world to make life at least a little bit better for the people they serve. The secondary benefit of serving in the Peace Corps, according to most volunteers, is that it made life richer for the people who served.
“In those days, in the 1960s, young people were more idealistic that the generation before them,” said Nick Schmader of Warwick, who found himself in Liberia in 1968. “One of the first things you learn is that there are other cultures where people have less regard for the individual and more of a sense of community than we were used to. In America, individualism is highly valued. In West Africa, the people have a stronger sense of community.”
Schmader was a design engineer and teacher for much of his career before he retired last year. He went to Liberia to train seventh and eighth graders in math and science.
“It was pretty obvious that they were poor compared to American standards but they did not regard themselves as poor or ignorant,” said Schmader. “As I became more knowledgeable of them, I realized that they welcomed us and they want to learn what we knew but they would pick and choose what they liked about our culture and retain their own culture and traditions. But they really appreciated the efforts we made for them.”
For Schmader and other Peace Corps veterans, the program represents a legacy of service that has become a significant part of America’s history and positive image abroad.
“And that is still a good thing because it brings people together,” said Schmader. “Regardless of what people think of American foreign policy, people from different parts of the world do not judge Americans on the basis of our government. They do not regard the American people as enemies.”
One of the things that Schmader has wondered about was the way the Peace Corps has remained above politics in this country and abroad.
“Back in the 1960s, young people were very much against the war in Vietnam and were very vocal about it, including the kids in the Peace Corps,” said Schmader. “They organized protests against the war, and I’m sure that didn’t please Nixon and other people who were for the war but he never did anything to hurt the Peace Corps. I think that had something to do with the fact that almost all of the people in Washington had a son or daughter or a nephew in the Peace Corps but probably because they realized the value of it.”
The value of the program continues, but theses days you are as likely to meet an idealist who is significantly older than the original volunteers.
The program was 22 years old and Susan Connelly was 66 when she volunteered to go to Liberia. After a career in nursing, much of it spent at Kent Hospital, Connelly trained nurses in Africa, just before the deadly plague of AIDS spread across the continent.
“Back then, when I pricked my fingertip, I worried about hepatitis,” she said. “There were no high-tech machines or medicine there. I had to remember back to the 1930s in America to use in Liberia. All of their medical equipment was outdated. Being able to remember all those things we knew was very helpful.”
That’s why Connelly continues to encourage older Americans to look into volunteering. If you are physically fit and motivated, there is a good chance the Peace Corps can find something for you to do.
“At first I thought I might be too old, but I learned that many older people are encouraged to volunteer and have skills and experience that is very valuable in poorer countries,” said Connelly.
Even before Susan Connelly arrived in Liberia, a coup led by Samuel Doe, a sergeant in the Army, had taken over the country and, in spite of his acceptance by Washington policymakers, his governance eventually laid the grounds for a protracted cycle of rebellion that culminated in civil war. For the first time, Susan Connelly worried.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t get out of the country,” she said.
After a long and bloody struggle, democracy and peace have returned to the country and, for the first time in a long time, Connelly became optimistic about the future of the friends she left behind in 1985. Genuinely, democratic elections have been held and a Liberian woman, who had spent much time in America, was elected president. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is widely believed to be the beginning of a new age of peace and progress there.
“She seems to be doing a great job,” said Connelly.
Since 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps, working in 139 countries. While there have been times that the Peace Corps has been removed from countries, many countries who are otherwise not fans of American politics still invite the Peace Corps into their countries. In fact, the program only goes where they are invited.
When the Peace Corps was invited to Botswana, Francine Connelly (Susan’s daughter) volunteered to go there to assist their efforts in combating AIDS.
“The Peace Corps left Botswana in 1990, but it has been asked to come back since,” said Francine. “For the most part, we are very welcome there, and I met a lot of older people who are about being taught by the Peace Corps. The chief of a village we worked in was trained by the volunteers.”
Francine and her husband, Andy DeLong, went to Botswana together. Both are trained social workers and their assignment was to help the people cope with the fallout of the AIDS epidemic. Francine said one out of four people in the country are infected with the HIV virus.
“Our job was to educate the people about prevention and to develop their life skills and capacity to deal with life,” she said. “So many kids have lost their parents to AIDS, and those orphans need all the help they can get.”
Francine and Andy also helped the women of the villages to become more self-sufficient and taught them ways to support themselves by making pottery and jewelry as a source of income. The idea of making Botswana technically savvy is still further down the road. In spite of massive improvements in the infrastructure of Botswana in the wake of discovering a rich lode of diamonds in that country, parts of the country are still without basic amenities.
“We had electricity for about three or four hours a day,” said Francine. “We had no running water. We had radio and we got our news from the BBC.”
Francine said it is essential for America to continue to support the Peace Corps.
“It is so important to Americans on the ground in other countries, without guns, having that one-on-one contact with other people,” she said. “I feel we were very effective and I think we left a good legacy, and if one or two people in Botswana don’t get AIDS because of what we did, it would be worth it.”
Sadly, not all Peace Corps tours of duty end well. According to Peace Corps sources, more than 239 people have died in the service since 1961, and part of the ceremonies held in Washington, D.C. last week was a memorial procession to honor those who died. Most of them were killed in accidents, but some died by more violent means. In 1999, they calculated that 3.1 per 10,000 died, or 1.9 per 100, had been victims of violent assault. Even then, few of the attacks have been politically motivated and the program said alcohol, crime and other universal social problems were the root causes.
But you will rarely meet anyone who volunteered who will say that the time in the Peace Corps was wasted. Providence school teacher and Cranston resident George McFadden was in South Korea from 1971 to 1974. When he applied for the Corps, he knew he didn’t want to be a farmer and signed up to teach English as a second language in Korea.
“The Korean people were very good at reading and translating English then but they had very little experience speaking it,” said McFadden. “They wanted to improve their speech in English.”
McFadden said he was surprised at how primitive the country still was in 1971.
“Even people in the city had no hot water and had outhouses,” he said. “There was very little and very slow railroad service and roads and almost no one had a car or a television. It was still a basically agricultural economy.”
When he headed for the rural area of Korea where he would be teaching, things were even more primitive.
“The village I went to had one road and it was dirt,” he said. “For water, they had a communal pump in the center of the village that they all used.”
McFadden left the program convinced that it was one of the greatest exports America has produced.
“Back then, Korea had no real freedom of the press or speech,” he said. “They didn’t have much of anything, but they never complained and they appreciated everything they learned from us…When I finally went back to visit, I couldn’t find the old school I taught in. The village was all built up and the streets were paved. They used to be farmers, but now they produce electronics, heavy industry, cars and ships and they have a real democracy.”
McFadden doesn’t take the credit for progress in Korea, but he does deserve some credit for helping them learn the language that helped them move into a global economy.
“Back then, when any westerner walked down the street, people would say, ‘American! American!’ Now, when they see a westerner they say, in excellent English, to Germans or Russians or anyone else, ‘Where are you from?’”
And, said McFadden, they really don’t mind when you say “America.”
For more information about the Peace Corps, write to them at 1111 @0th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20526, call 1-800-424-8580, or visit www.peacecorps.gov.