Glenn Blumhorst’s letter in the Chicago Tribune

 

Commentary: Peace Corps evacuated all 7,300 of its volunteers due to coronavirus.
They need immediate help.

by Glenn Blumhorst in the Chicago Tribune

02/21/20 01:24 PM EST

Imagine, if you can, a scenario in which the Department of Defense saw the need to recall for emergency security purposes the entirety of its service corps in one fell swoop. That’s essentially what happened over the past week, when the U.S. Peace Corps agency made the difficult and unprecedented decision to suspend its programs indefinitely, evacuating all 7,300 volunteers serving in more than 60 countries — including 280 from Illinois — due to the coronavirus outbreak and informing them their service has ended.

As the virus spread rapidly worldwide, travel restrictions quickly tightened, risks to the personal health of volunteers rose rapidly and the window to bring America’s “grassroots diplomats” home was closing swiftly. Understandably, the top priority of the agency was ensuring the safety and security of volunteers overseas. But today many returning volunteers feel like they have been fired and left with no benefits and little support as they arrive home.

To its credit, the agency remains focused on the complex process of bringing all volunteers home safely. Meanwhile, the broader Peace Corps community, which includes more than 250,000 Returned Peace Corps volunteers over the past 59 years, is rallying to welcome and support our courageous volunteers — these diplomats of peace and goodwill — in returning to a very different home environment than which they left, with an uncertain short-term future ahead.

Having left my rural Missouri home to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 1988 to 1991, I felt a visceral connection with the 169 volunteers preparing to leave Guatemala on Wednesday. They shared personal stories and photos on social media, trying to come to grips with what it means to be evacuated from the schools and host families and wider communities they were part of. As they said their goodbyes, I imagine every one of them pledged to return. One day they will.

As the White House and Congress respond to this crisis, perhaps the most complex since World War II, it is important that our returning 7,300 volunteers and the Peace Corps itself not get lost in the shuffle. The White House and Congress should step in quickly to assure Peace Corps volunteers and the public at large that this institution launched by President John F. Kennedy does not become another tragic victim of the coronavirus.

The first step: Congress should include in its massive appropriations packages funds to cover evacuation costs and eventual rehiring and redeployment of many of the current volunteers who wish to return to their countries once the crisis is over.

In addition, evacuated volunteers need additional immediate assistance including:

  • Adequate coverage for physical and mental health.
  • Support in finding work in their U.S. communities here so they can apply their special skill sets to help their communities overcome this pandemic.
  • Appropriate exceptions to current policies related to student loans, graduate school, unemployment eligibility and federal hiring.

I fully realize the Peace Corps community is not alone in its needs. Every extended family, every sector of our economy and every state faces current or pending hardship. But I do raise these concerns, because too often in previous policy conversations the challenges and needs of the Peace Corps community are forgotten at worst, an afterthought at best. In recent months, the Peace Corps already faced threats to its funding and independence.

Why does that matter? There is unfinished business that only Peace Corps volunteers can do. Peace Corps’ underlying mission — to promote world peace and friendship — is as vital today as it was when the program began nearly 60 years ago.

In the meantime, these returned Peace Corps volunteers will join the ranks of nearly a quarter million others who have served their country. They will be America’s next generation of diplomats and international business leaders, educators and entrepreneurs, philanthropists and public servants, globally informed writers and scientists. Undoubtedly, many will serve on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response in America, having honed their cultural, language and community health skills working on HIV/AIDS, malaria and polio programs while in the Peace Corps. Their two-year experience abroad returns a lifetime domestic dividend.

Time and again, volunteers learn the importance of resilience and flexibility in the face of crisis and sclerotic systems. After their service, many build on the connections they made internationally — to foster economic development and educate girls, tackle public health and the local impacts of climate change. Their optimism and commitment are crucial in a world where more people increasingly question the viability of democracy itself.

The fact is that Returned Peace Corps volunteers are all around you. When you meet one, thank them for their service. Take the time to listen to their stories. Let your member of Congress know that you value the Peace Corps and its mission at home and abroad.

These are unprecedented times, and many of us feel overwhelmed. Just as we will certainly respond and rally our nation back from the depths of this pandemic, we must also respond to the world and rally our nation to support Peace Corps’ redeployment across the globe.

The pandemic reminds us that Americans — for better and for worse — are citizens of an interconnected world. Peace Corps volunteers are essential to our national understanding of that world in a way that contributes to the health, well-being and security of our country. So I hope and believe that Americans will rally behind this proud institution as it would its other service organizations, and that the Peace Corps will emerge from this hiatus a stronger, better organization.

Glenn Blumhorst (Guatemala 1988-91) is president and CEO of National Peace Corps Association.

13 Comments

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  • Thank you, Glenn for your letter and leadership. I believe in the Peace Corps, its volunteers and its mission. We must get through this and become even stronger.

  • A compelling assessment and appeal, reflecting the realities faced by the Peace Corps given today’s unique and threatening circumstances. The impact on our Peace Corps Volunteers is highly regrettable but the decision to bring them home was necessary and responsible.

  • Glenn,

    Excellent letter. Given that many of the returned Volunteers will have difficulty in obtaining professional, career based jobs because they will return to their Host Countries once this coronavirus is over, why not have them assigned to agencies like FEMA or the US Public Health Service as temporary employees. Volunteers will be needed to complement current health staff at the local, community and state level. Current health staff is already stressed out and could use dedicated PC Volunteers as replacements. The Returned PC Volunteers are already well-trained and thus could be added to extant Federal agencies with little or no training required.

    • Great idea!!! If only we had a federal government that could recognize it as such–or spell the word idea.

  • There may be two problems with your suggestions. The first is the evacuees have been terminated. They are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers. They will not be returning to their host countries as PCVs. The PC federal agency certainly can not place them anywhere. It is not clear if they qualify for non-competitive status. The second problem is most if not all must self-quarantee for 14 days. Many are having trouble finding a place where they can safely do that. Peace Corps is offereing minimal support. It is not clear what the legislation being proposed will do for these evacees or how quickly it would be available.

    • Officially they COSed, so they should have federal non-competitive status. Of course I don’t know that and as you say, Joanne, I certainly hope so. And though you may be right in a technical sense, there would be no reason to believe that said (R)PCVs could not be fast-tracked to return to their countries if those countries remain open. The major problem is the time lapse before that will be possible. By that time, most of them will likely have tracked a new path in life.

  • The NPCA needs to take action on this issue. To me it seems like another move to use the crisis to eliminate programs the administration doesn’t like (c.f. the proposed ban on asylum seekers at Mexican border).

  • Thanks Glenn for such a moving and important letter. In the past, I have received emails from both of Virginia’s senators in support of the Peace Corps and I will contact them again.
    Dan Campbell, Peace Corps El Salvador, 1974-1977

  • This may or may not fill a thought for our time also: Lawrence Fixel’s “THE SMILE AT THE FOOT OF THE LADDER (‘If there’s one among you, or among you one, who climbed the ladder of his own identity, he shook the hand of Mister Agony’.-A.T Rosen’)
    1….. The painful ascent: hands gripping the sides, step after step, not knowing how much further we can go. As if it were indeed
    some risky venture, on a sheer rock face, that we have foolishly undertaken-perhaps to prove something, or answer someone else’s challenge…. But this is just one reading of the poet’s words. Better perhaps to set aside the warning, the cautionary note, the metaphor itself, and return to the literal, familiar object. Precisely what you can see for yourself: stored in the garage, or propped against a wall that needs cleaning or painting….
    2….. Have we moved too quickly here, or in the wrong direction? Perhaps even more than either image or metaphor, our real need is for a concept that the ladder itself involves both the horizontal and he vertical. Something designed a long time ago by someone with a direct, useful task to perform. One that involves both ascending and descending….
    3…. But of course we have left out something. We have forgotten that we still have a story to tell. One that we have heard, read, or invented, imagined…. Ladder in a romantic novel. He finds one conveniently placed beside the house. And there he goes: in moonlight, or hidden among the dark shadows, up, up, toward the arms of his beloved… Or more seriously, in desperate circumstance, the last chance for escape of the men trapped in the mine….
    4. … And where out of all this comes the notion of standing at the foot of the ladder, with no inclination, no desire, to ascend? Even if it is only that “one among you” for whom it is enough to feel the earth under his feet…. True he has missed the heights, the excitement of the ascent, the panoramic view of peaks and valleys…. He feels ready to move on; for he has witnessed enough to let him know he hasfound his rightful place. This must be one of those moments, he tells himself, when one can simply walk past, praising the small beauties of the small world….” (C) Copyright Lawrence Fixel

  • Among critical needs for the newly-returned Volunteers, who have been given COS status, are funds to cover the array of reentry expenses, and medical insurance. I hope the agency, due to circumstances beyond the Volunteers’ control, provides the full two years of allowance (and full PC Response allowance) regardless of actual length of service, and quickly disburses the transfers.

    Regarding medical insurance, returning Volunteers are covered for two months of transition insurance and can buy an additional one month. My hope is that the agency extends the buy-in period to six months for newly-returned Volunteers who request it.

  • Assigning Returning PC Volunteers to the Public Health Service or to FEMA to help with the current crisis seems feasible.
    I hope our Senators & Representatives in the states most affected by the coronavirus can see this. RPCV are indeed flexible and
    would be a great help in jobs open in these agencies.

    Louise Wolf Morgan RPCV Liberia 63-65

  • Thanks for your very thoughtful letter. I will work through my RPCV groups here in Florida and later in Kentucky to serve the purposes you outline. In the meantime, I am contacting my Kentucky congressman to urge support for the 7,300 volunteers; placement in FEMA and/or public health roles makes sense.

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