At 50, Peace Corps going strong
Capital Region (NY) residents tell of their experiences working to help others

By Carol DeMare, Staff writer

Published 12:01 a.m., Monday, May 9, 2011

A half-century ago, a young president instilled patriotism in an idealistic generation, urging Americans to go to foreign lands to help their people have a better life.

The response was what President John F. Kennedy expected when he established the Peace Corps, two months after his stirring Jan. 20, 1961, inaugural address.

Young people rushed to apply. Most were college graduates. Some had no college degree, but had skills in farming, carpentry, construction and other trades much needed in the Third World.

After graduating from college in Connecticut in 1966, James Gaughan joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Ghana.

“I had a belief in the good will of people and an ambition to make a small difference in the world,” said Gaughan, now 67 and mayor of Altamont, who retired from the state Department of Education.

At Fairfield University, he majored in English literature and Latin. In Ghana, he learned the native language, Ewe, and for two years he taught math and English at a teachers college in the village of Akatsi to students aged 18 to 70. “My service changed my life and my outlook on the world,” he said.

Over the past 50 years, more than 200,000 men and women have served in 139 countries, providing education, clean water, business development and information technology. Now, amid concerns that federal budget cuts could imperil the program, Peace Corps veterans and officials say the mission of expanding cross-cultural understanding and providing technically skilled assistance remains constant and its appeal strong.

“The Peace Corps will continue to be a life-defining leadership experience for its volunteers and will serve to build on our existing legacy,” saidVinny Wickes, who is responsible for recruitment in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Kennedy appointed his brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, the first Peace Corps director. The initial group of 51 volunteers left in August 1961 for Ghana and Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania). Shriver stayed at the helm for six years, during which time the program expanded to 55 countries.

“Volunteers range in age from college students to retirees and come from all walks of life,” the website states. In 1966, Lillian Carter, then 68 and the mother of future President Jimmy Carter, went to India, where she spent two years on public health efforts, including work with lepers.

Since 1987, colleges have teamed up with the agency, offering international graduate degree programs, like one at the University at Albany School of Public Health.

This month after commencement at UAlbany, Heather Walton, 21, of Saratoga Springs, will be assigned to Ethiopia, where she will teach English. Walton said she had thought about the Peace Corps since high school and now is a “perfect time in my life to travel and learn not only more about myself but about another culture … and give back something to the world.”

Jean DeMarco, 31, of Schenectady, is also going to Ethiopia, as an HIV and AIDS adviser in conjunction with UAlbany’s master’s international program in public health.

DeMarco, who already has a doctorate in cellular and molecular biology from Penn State University and was a research technician in a cancer lab there, wanted to work abroad, which the School of Public Health program made possible.

Eliot Cresswell, 34, a Saratoga Springs resident who works for the SUNY Research Foundation, arrived in Morocco in 2000, fulfilling an ambition he’d had since he was 10 and captivated by the experience of a family friend’s daughter who was in the Peace Corps.

Cresswell, who majored in English literature at the University at Buffalo, taught English in the city of Rommani at a youth facility. Teaching provided a springboard for other projects, like organizing basketball teams and outings.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was at an airport en route to Malawi to meet his mother, who was on a trip, when a security guard told him in Arabic that a plane had hit a building in New York and a lot of people were dead. He had doubt as to whether he fully understood the guard. He learned more about the attacks on arrival in South Africa.

On his return to Morocco, friends were sympathetic, he said. “They understood the trauma and devastation. They were curious about what it meant to Americans and what it meant to me. They saw it as a tragedy.”

Cresswell is disappointed “that our experience in foreign lands hasn’t been made better use of by our government. We regret that and we want to continue to make ourselves heard.”

Columbia County Judge Paul Czajka, 57, dropped out of UAlbany in 1974 to join because, he said, “I was idealistic, and I wanted to see the world.” He applied at 19, and a year later was sent to the Philippines, where he harnessed the skills he’d honed growing up on a farm in Livingston.

He helped farmers on the island of Negros apply for small-scale agriculture loans at rural banks and taught farmers to use sugarcane tops to feed cattle instead of plowing the tops under.

In 1988, Augusta Field of Troy, a divorced mother of three, celebrated her 50th birthday in Lesotho, a tiny mountainous country surrounded by South Africa, where she worked with women to build a business selling their sewing and pottery.

“I was fascinated by it, and I had learned so much,” said the Baltimore native, now 72, who coordinates a program at RPI, counseling, tutoring and helping students apply for medical school.

She is confident about the Peace Corps’ future. “President Obama has come forward with money, and there are enough people in Congress who had been Peace Corps volunteers,” she said. “It’s an organization looked upon with pride by Americans. You really are an ambassador.”

Albany Assemblyman Jack McEneny served in Colombia in 1966, working in community development in three fishing villages near the Caribbean Sea where he helped residents put a roof on an old building so it could become a school for seventh- and eighth-grades for the three communities. Previously, he said, “they couldn’t afford to add anything beyond the sixth grade,” although “everyone agreed they needed more education.”

McEneny, 67, a Siena College graduate and assembly member for 19 years, said “We were basically liberal arts college kids and many farm kids with good practical skills.” Eventually, he said, the Peace Corps began seeking technical people with engineering and business degrees, but he believes Barack Obama would like to see it return to how it was.

“There’s a need to capture the altruism of youth and the enthusiasm of youth,” he said, along with young people’s spirit of adventure.

Last year, Czajka got together with other volunteers from the Philippines who he hadn’t seen in 35 years.

In 2005, Gaughan returned to Ghana where he reconnected with some of the people he knew 40 years ago. While “much of the rural setting seemed to be frozen in a time long past,” he said, the students at the college where he taught were working on computers and talking on cellphones.

He is optimistic about the future. “Now, with almost 9,000 volunteers from 50 states serving in 77 developing countries, the Peace Corps is one of our most cost-effective agents for diplomacy and development.”