1969

Stuck along the road somewhere. This was not an uncommon volunteer experience, but one that had uncommon, perhaps unique outcomes. For example, a radiator leak would be repaired by shaving a bar of soap into thin slices and massaging and kneading one to the right consistency and shape for the repair. Then off we’d go in Afghanistan. A temporary fix, yes, but one that got us moving again.

Raised by family who’d witnessed the Great Depression, I’d been taught to respect money and the work required to accumulate it. However, by the time I was eighteen, I was part of Middle America’s buy-a-new-one culture. Peace Corps yanked me out of that back to a place where when something broke, one uses ingenuity and whatever is on hand to fix it.

While the budget drama in Washington showcases the current stars and super stars of our political parties, we watch the nation edging toward a historic default. The story may end with cessation of taxation as we know it, the death of tax breaks for the wealthiest, social security checks ripped from age-mottled hands of our elders and ourselves, even deeper national debt.

How committed are we to our government’s expenditures? What is the value of the Peace Corps for example? The expenditure, $400 million in 2010, was not so much; still it reflected the largest increase, $60 million, ever, year to year for the agency. Back in the late 60’s our group of fifteen figured the taxpayer had invested $300,000 for training and maintenance of Peace Corps smallpox vaccinators in Afghanistan over three years. Like most volunteers, we would regularly ask ourselves if it was worth it. Could taking time out, could missing out, and could bumping our heads against mud walls like this possibly be worth it? Once we even wondered if the cost could be justified?

Those who stayed felt it was. Much of the value lay not in the work we did so much, although that was part of it, as for the way the experience affected us. Amidst all the uncertainty, that one thing was clear. Many small lessons in another way to be in the world and in the many ways to recognize one another across the cultural divide made it clear we were changed in a good way.

So, 200,000 returned volunteers are here somewhere witnessing the budget show. We get that wealth and power in the form of re-electability are on the line. Let’s ask the Peace Corps to give up some of its small piece of the government funding pie.  Volunteers and staff see over and over again people making do with less and getting the job done, at least for the time being.  In the same way Peace Corps insists that volunteers make do with less, Peace Corps might set an example of that now when we need it the most. Don’t give up fielding more volunteers with better training and more relevant roles to fill. Give up some of the funding to help resolve a crisis we all own. Help get us moving again.