17 March 2011

Peace Corps Honors First Director for Commitment to World Peace


  Harris Wofford and Tim Shriver talking (Courtesy of Peace Corps)

Harris Wofford, an early architect of the Peace Corps, talks to Tim Shriver about Sargent Shriver’s service as the first Peace Corps director.

By Kathryn McConnell
Staff Writer

Washington - In early March at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, a group of early Peace Corps volunteers passed the torch - actually a piece of kente cloth - to a new group of volunteers in a traditional African departure ceremony.

The returned volunteers knew that the challenges the departing volunteers were about to face would turn into lifetimes of community engagement and greater understanding of other peoples.

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams described this scene to a gathering of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers at a March 15 State Department ceremony honoring the corps’ first director, R. Sargent Shriver. “By living among the people they serve, sharing their food, their customs … Peace Corps volunteers offer assistance in a direct and personal way. … Inevitably they learn as much as they teach,” Williams said.

“We honor Sargent Shriver and his commitment to promoting world peace and friendship,” Williams said. Williams presented a Peace Corps lifetime achievement award to Shriver’s’ son, Tim Shriver, head of the Special Olympics. For many years, the elder Shriver also was active in the organization his wife Eunice founded and his son now leads. Sargent Shriver died at age 95 on January 18, less than two months shy of Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary on March 1.

“People around the world realize [Peace Corps] is not a service of one country to another but of people to people,” Tim Shriver told the gathering, which included the ambassadors of Ghana and Tanzania, the first countries to host Peace Corps volunteers. “This is a service of peace, of building a community with the exchange of ideas and the understanding that comes from learning a language and living together.”

Through volunteers’ service in other countries, “Peace Corps helps ensure global development is a two-way street - development not only of societies and economies, but of outlooks and perspectives as well,” said Williams, a Peace Corps volunteer teacher-trainer in Costa Rica in the late 1960s.

Kelly McCormack, a volunteer in municipal development in Guatemala from 2007 to 2009, agrees. “I have memories and a global perspective that will stick with me for the rest of my life,” said the resident of Northern Virginia.

Today, volunteers work “shoulder-to-shoulder with their hosts … combating the spread of malaria in Senegal, empowering women through microenterprise in Thailand, teaching students computer literacy in the Dominican Republic, improving the health of children in Morocco,” Williams said.

Two women talking (Courtesy of Paige Grant)

“I am asked to name the baby,” says Paige Grant about her return to Nepal. “Ariel says, ‘Why not give her your Nepali name?’ I do. My namesake is Kalpana, or ‘Imagination.’”

In a taped message aired at the ceremony, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called volunteers “ambassadors to the world. They’re often the first American in their host community and the first American that many have ever met. They share their generosity, creativity and skills in ways that change lives and deepen understanding across cultures.”

“Peace Corps volunteers commit to making a difference for others and in turn find themselves forever changed,” added Judith McHale, under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

Working as an agricultural teacher in Chiti, Nepal, in the mid-1970s, Paige Grant discovered an interest in soil-erosion prevention and other forms of conservation. So, she enlisted children in the community to join her in planting trees in an eroding watershed. When Grant returned to Chiti for a visit with her family in 2007, she was delighted to see that the watershed had recovered.

President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps by executive order weeks after taking office in 1961 and convinced Shriver to lead the agency. Nine months later, Peace Corps sent 500 volunteers to nine countries. At the beginning, Shriver decided to “risk everything in a leap of faith” to keep the agency going when many people didn’t think it could succeed and even referred to it as a “kiddy corps,” his son said.

Two years after the first volunteers left the United States, 6,500 volunteers were serving in 50 countries and 800 volunteers had returned home. By 1965, 3,000 volunteers had returned to the United States, and that year one-third of them came to a conference in Washington organized by Vice President Hubert Humphrey to explore the role veterans might take in education, business, community programs and government.

One area in which returned volunteers have made a difference is education. The Peace Corps has supplied U.S. schools with a steady flow of teachers. Returned volunteers have brought to American universities the teaching of languages like Hausa, Pashto and Tamil, Williams said. Grant, who farms near Santa Fe, New Mexico, educates informally, speaking to community groups like the Girl Scouts about Nepal and conservation.

Kathryn Clark served two tours as a Peace Corps volunteer. After her first tour in Sierra Leone from 1968 to 1969, she returned home to North Carolina where she became a state coordinator for Special Olympics. At Sargent Shriver’s request, she rejoined Peace Corps and served in Jamaica in the mid-1980s, becoming the first volunteer to launch a Special Olympics project in that country.

As McHale said, “It’s telling that Peace Corps volunteers don’t refer to themselves as ‘former’ anything. They are simply ‘returned.’”

On March 16, Tim Shriver and Williams signed an agreement for Peace Corps and the Special Olympics to work together to increase opportunities to support youth and people with intellectual disabilities around the world.

Since the Peace Corps began in 1961, nearly 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 countries. More than 8,000 volunteers are currently serving in 77 countries.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)