Peace Corps Celebrates 50 Years Local Volunteers Recall Their Experiences
When John F. Kennedy, a presidential candidate in October of 1960, addressed students at the University of Michigan, he challenged them to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries, thus planting the seed for the birth of the Peace Corps.
On March 1, 1961, the newly elected Kennedy issued Executive Order 10924, creating the Peace Corps. Sargent Shriver was appointed its first director. He developed the mission of the Peace Corps that includes three goals: providing technical assistance to the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served; and to help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.
Several Moore County volunteers share what the experience of being a Peace Corps volunteer means to them.
Murray Stern served in Sierra Leone, West Africa, from 1961-63.
"While a graduate student at the University of Illinois in 1961, I heard John Kennedy's speech regarding service and the Peace Corps," he says. " After graduate school I volunteered and served two years as a teacher in secondary education in Freetown and at a government training college for teachers.
"I look back at the 50 years that have passed and still remark that I learned more from this journey than I could have imagined."
Lucinda Boyd was a teacher in Kano, Nigeria, from 1962 to 1964.
"Since you cannot join the summer training group for Ghana would you be able to join the training at UCLA beginning in late September for Nigeria?"
"With that invitation, given over the phone in early 1962, my life gained a trajectory beyond completion of a master's degree in science and math education in August," says Boyd. "I made the necessary decisions about my apartment in Chicago and was on that plane to Los Angeles, eager for whatever lay ahead."
Boyd and fellow volunteerS were assigned to a school, living in the home of the designated administrator.
"Within a few days, I learned that I would be the 'games,' the most astonishing part of which was scheduled physical training at 7 to 9 a.m.," says Boyd. "Otherwise I taught general science and 'lower maths' in the regular school hours."
It's been almost 50 years since Maureen Fowley (then Maureen Boesen), a recent college graduate, boarded her first airplane flight - New York to Los Angeles, then to Hawaii - to begin her Peace Corps experience. After three months spent training in Hawaii, she had another long plane ride, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with the other members of Malaysia XII. >
"My assignment took me to the Malay state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo," she says. "Flying into the capital city of Kuching for the first time, seeing only green jungle and the thatched roof of a longhouse, I wondered what I had gotten myself into."
Two years later - and to this day - Fowley is certain she got more out of the experience than she gave, especially increasing her global awareness and understanding >along with an >appreciation of other cultures. > >
From 1972 to 1975, Katherine Taylor was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, French West Africa, where she taught high school English to French-speaking students.
"Niger is one of the least developed and poorest countries in the world," says Taylor. "This region is plagued with famine, and was experiencing one when I was there. I lived in a village, in an adobe house with a thatched roof, and no running water or electricity."
Walking to school in the hot season, through the sand, was a challenge since the temperature could be 110 degrees in the shade.
"My students were thrilled to be in school, and hard-working, so teaching was a joy," she says. "Africa will always be with me, reminding me to simplify and to love. This experience has influenced the rest of my life. I worked a total of 10 years in International Development, primarily in Africa. I then worked for the American Red Cross and now I am attending seminary."
Liberia, West Africa, was James E. Hagan Jr.'s destination in 1974, when he served two years teaching English to Liberian high school students.
"I was very attracted to the Peace Corps after being drafted into the U.S. Army and serving as a field medic," he says. " I remember that a big influence on my decision to join was President Kennedy's speech asking that young people consider doing something for their country. The Peace Corps meant a great deal to me. It brought me to a deep realization of the pain, suffering and hunger so many people confront every day, especially in third world countries, and how difficult the problem is to resolve."
Sharri Mangum served in El Salvador, South America, from 1999 to 2002.
-"I always loved the JFK quote, 'Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,'" she says. "Coupled with my fascination by foreign places and service oriented nature, I was a perfect candidate for Peace Corps."
Mangum enjoyed the opportunity to travel and to work in an agricultural program funded by the United Nations.
"Even more than that is the sustained relationship between people there and me and my extended family," she says.
Mangum admits that she was "scared to death" when she went to live in the village all alone with no electricity, running water and an outhouse with a bat she eventually named Mauricio.
"Fortunately I lived among a gracious people whom I came to love as well as my own family," she says. "When my parents visited, several villagers told them to not worry because they would care for me, which was funny because I'd lived on my own for 10 years by then and thought I was there to help them!
"Thinking today about my time there, JFK said it best when he addressed Americans on how to strengthen the nation through service here and abroad in order to maintain peace," she says. " I regularly encourage others to join some form of service either stateside or overseas through Peace Corps, military, aid groups, Foreign Service or church missions."
Nancy O'Connell had been a widow for more than five years when she made the decision to join the Peace Corps. She served from 2003 to 2005 in Suriname, South America.
"The Peace Corps came to mind remembering what an extraordinary experience my daughter Ann had as Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania, East Africa, in the late 1980s," she says. "Her father and I traveled to visit with her and were warmly welcomed in her village. We enjoyed seeing the friendship and respect they gave to Ann each day."
And so at age 68, the retired pharmacist set the application process in motion.
"In just about one year I was offered an invitation to join the Peace Corps in the country of Suriname, South America," she says. "I had requested a warm country, and Suriname, located just three degrees from the equator, fit the bill."
O'Connell was assigned to an HIV/AIDs agency in the capital city of Paramaribo. The agency's work included home and hospital visits, AIDS prevention programs, counseling to AIDS patients and sewing handmade quilts of remembrance.
"My Peace Corps experience taught me many things," she says. "I could do without the many luxuries that we take for granted here in the U.S. That people are the same the world over. We laugh and cry at the same things and that friends and families, new and old, are a mainstay to a happy life."
Katharine Vess graduated from Hiram College in 2004 with a degree in psychology - and a desire to help others around the world.
She applied to the Peace Corps in July 2004, and was assigned to Ukraine. After training in the U.S. and three months with five other volunteers in the town of Vasilkyiv, Vess was sent to Irshansk, a small mining town. She taught English and worked on a variety of secondary projects.
"When I graduated from Hiram College in 2004 I had a degree in psychology and a strong desire to help others around the world. Peace Corps was the perfect fit. > I applied and in July 2004 I was assigned to Ukraine. > I was part of Ukraine Group 27 and at the end of September we assembled in Washington, D.C., before flying out to Ukraine. > I spent the next three months with five other volunteers in the town of Vasilkyiv, about 30 minutes out of Kiev, living with a host family, learning Russian and student teaching at an elementary school in town.
"Outside of work I did my best to become an involved member of my community," Vess says. "I attended dance recitals and concerts by my students, went to Irshansk's New Year's Eve and Independence Day celebrations and exercised with my host sister and other students in the school's gym."
Vess says she highly recommends Peace Corps service to others.
Another "older" volunteer, Lenore Johnsen also served in the Ukraine.
"In September of 2004, at the age of 64, I arrived in the country of Ukraine, and began training as a Peace Corps volunteer, living in a suburb of Kiev with a youngish widow and her two beautiful daughters," she says. "During that fall, the Orange Revolution was taking place in the capital city of Kiev. This was one of a wave of citizen revolutions that had been happening in former USSR countries during the past 10 years. It was a most exciting and emotional experience to be present in a country while its poor and still oppressed citizens revolted against the Russian-influenced and blatantly fixed presidential election."
When training was over, Johnsen was sent to Kovel, a medium sized town in the far western part of the country, close to the border with Poland.
"My job was to provide ideas for improving the quality of English education, to help expand and maintain the resources in the center, and conduct workshops for both students and teachers," she says. "I was involved with all the schools in the city, and in contact with resource centers throughout Ukraine. I wrote a grant proposal to the Peace Corps that awarded our center $5,000, enough to pay for a new computer center, space, furniture, teachers and six computers."
Johnsen says she loved her time in Ukraine.
"The people I met were dying to hear about how we Americans lived, what we believed, how our schools and government operated, how theirs compared with ours - all of these things were shared in a spirit of common respect and affection," she says. "Living and working closely with people is, really, a very effective and personal type of diplomacy."
For information about joining the Peace Corps, visit www.peacecorps.gov.
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