Monday, November 21
In the spring of 1963 while a senior at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I joined the Peace Corps. Your vision of the future, words of encouragement and faith in the ability of volunteers like myself presented too great a challenge to pass up. I was part of D.R. VII, the first Urban Community Development group in the Dominican Republic.
Training, which began in July, was to end in October, but was extended until mid-November due to a military coup and resultant uncertainty about that country’s readiness for a seventh volunteer group. On the Friday of the first week home between training and leaving the United States I head: “President Kennedy has just been shot in Dallas,” as I prepared to shop for things I was told I’d need in Santo Domingo. In retrospect, the shock and national tragedy of that fatal event underscored for me the need to do well overseas, to not disappoint others, but to inspire them as you had inspired me.
I arrived in Santo Domingo one week after your assassination. Gazing out the window of the plane, the darkness of the sky that night paralleled the darkness that had descended temporarily over our collective national conscience. “What could I do that could possibly make a difference in view of the magnitude of your senseless assassination a few days ago in Dallas?”
By contrast, in 1961 Dictator Rafael Trujillo had been assassinated after 31 years of ruling the Dominican Republic. Celebrations had ensured. In December 1963 your picture hung in every barrio home – draped in black. They told us you were their president, too. They called us, ‘Sons of Kennedy’.
Teaching residents of a squatter barrio to organize and work together to achieve common goals was the most memorable, rewarding and frustrating of all my Peace Corps experiences. Two of us working as a team while building a house in the barrio had identified residents with leadership characteristics. We invested in these people our time and knowledge of how to form an organization, elect officers and conduct business in a democratic way.
Another revolution, this one in April, 1965 cut short our tour of duty by about three months. By the time we left, the Club Porgresista de La Surza had already experienced several successes. Residents themselves had provided the labor to bring drinking water to the barrio – one tap which would run from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. and served 2,000 residents – and also had been involved with hand-washing, immunization and how-to-cook-with-CARE-food campaigns.
On a trip to La Surza in 1972 I learned Peace Corps Volunteers were no longer needed there. As we had instructed, the house we built and turned over to the officers of the Club to manage in trust was used as a school by day and a community meeting place and entertainment center at night. Additional classrooms were being added.
For establishing the Peace Corps, all it symbolizes, all its accomplishments, all worldwide whose lives have changed because of it – thank you – we remember.