from the Hawaii Tribune Herald


When the federal government sought a training area to transition volunteers in the newly forged Peace Corps to posts in Southeast Asia, the Big Island was a natural choice.

Waipio Valley, Pepeekeo, Honomu, Ninole, Rainbow Falls and Waiakea-Uka became home to more than 12,000 volunteers between 1962 and 1972. Waipio Valley, in fact, was President John F. Kennedy’s first Peace Corps training camp, as opposed to universities and other facilities used in other areas.

The resemblance to Southeast Asia, the climate, plants and animals, even the languages, helped acclimate mainland volunteers to what they could expect at even more primitive posts overseas.

“Hilo was like a Third World country when we came here in the ’60s,” said Bill Sakovich, a former Peace Corps volunteer and trainer who came to Hawaii shortly after he earned his geography degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.

“We were pretty much the only haoles,” Sakovich added. “Many people did not speak English. But the community just really opened up to us in the Peace Corps. They always took us in. We were part of their families.”

Sakovich is coordinating a 50th Peace Corps Anniversary Celebration that will bring 300 to 400 people to the Big Island this week. Events are scheduled for Hilo and Kona and along the Hamakua Coast as former volunteers make new friendships and rekindle old ones with fellow volunteers and the legions of former staff and community members who helped ease their transition to a foreign country.

Among the highlights: Potlucks Tuesday at Old Kona Airport Park and Friday and Sunday at Wailoa State Park, blessing and grand opening Wednesday of the University of Hawaii at Hilo North Hawaii Education and Research Center Heritage Center featuring a Peace Corps anniversary exhibit honoring local residents who worked in Waipio Valley.

Susan Taylor Wehren, who along with her husband, Al, and son, Jeff, own Kona Shoji Design, is coordinating Kona-side events. Wehren, who served as an English teacher in Micronesia from 1968 to 1970 after graduating from the University of Oregon, didn’t train in Hawaii, as the Peace Corps was transitioning to in-country training.

But she is struck by the number of former Peace Corps volunteers who have subsequently made the Big Island their home, including herself and her husband, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia.

“I’m always running across them,” she said. “There are at least 400 on our mailing list, and that’s not everybody.”

But Wehren understands the lure.

“We always wanted to live in the tropics,” she said.

Sakovich married Jean Cushnie, a Big Island plantation girl, during his Peace Corps stint. He served as a volunteer in Indonesia, where leaders there called for a swimming coach in an effort to build an Olympic team. Sakovich returned as a trainer in Hilo and Waipio Valley, served a stint in the Army’s 442nd Regiment at Schofield Barracks, spent a few years in Micronesia working for Bank of Hawaii and ultimately returned to Hilo, where he continues working as a swim coach.

Waipio Valley, says Sakovich, proved a perfect training camp because of its remote location and the Peace Corps’ ability to build two Philippine-style houses, two houses patterned after Rural Resettlement homes in Thailand and a longhouse using a Borneo design.