By Jeff Walsh (South Africa 2016-18)
Ukraine, a sovereign country in Eastern Europe, was attacked this past February. Other previously neutral European countries are bolstering their military arsenal and are scrambling to join NATO for protection. The 101st Airborne has arrived in Poland. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set the doomsday clock to 100 seconds to midnight. Doctors Without Borders stated that due to persecution, war, hunger, gender orientation. and climate change there are now 100 million refugees worldwide. Polar ice caps are melting, as we lose Arctic sea ice at a rate of almost 13% per decade as the Arctic could be ice-free by the summer by 2040. We need a hero. We need someone who actively understand and promotes world peace and friendship. We need the Peace Corps.
On March 15, 2020- all Peace Corps operations came to a grinding halt. All 7,000 volunteers in over 50 countries were sent back to the United States due to the ever-increasing risks associated with COVID-19 and the worldwide pandemic. For the first time in the storied 60-year history of the United States Peace Corps, agricultural volunteers weren’t educating farmers on sustainable soil and water conservation technology best practices, environmental volunteers weren’t leading grassroots efforts to protect the environment, community economic development volunteers weren’t working with development banks and NGOs to foster economic opportunities in communities.
There is hope. Here is the good news. The Peace Corps is back. The official post on the Peace Corps website: “We are excited to announce the return of Volunteers to service. After more than two years of careful monitoring, evaluating, adapting, and planning, the Peace Corps is returning Volunteers to service on a rolling basis until all posts have reopened.” Day by day, week by week, the Peace Corps gets closer to returning to full strength. So far 42 countries are back up and running with fresh, new cohorts of volunteers ready for service.
The Peace Corps may very well be the best value for taxpayer’s dollars. Older returned Peace Corps volunteers can attest to the truth of the 1970s Peace Corps ads including “the toughest job you’ll ever love” and “the corner office can wait. Some corners of the world can’t”. Volunteers only get a small monthly stipend over a two-year period for all the good they bring into the world. To put this in a proper perspective, just one Northrop B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber costs 2.2 billion dollars for the military, while the whole annual budget of the entire Peace Corps is only 410 million dollars. Help is on the way. H.R.1456 – Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2022 has passed the house and is currently in the senate. Among the proposals for improvements in the bill includes provisions for an increase in worker’s compensation benefits and additional post-service healthcare benefits.
Last year, on March 1st, 2021 was the 60-year anniversary of the United States Peace Corps. Over two generations ago, President John F. Kennedy asked idealistic young Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”. Over 235,000 volunteers have answered the call to date. On that historic day in March, Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, sending 750 volunteers on a historic journey to 13 countries. For the doubters, naysayers who don’t believe that grassroots volunteerism works- consider the fact that former adversaries can truly become partners of peace. Consider the fact that in 2022, for the first time in history, the Southeastern Asian country of Vietnam became a Peace Corps site and just accepted its first cohort of 10 volunteers.
I am a second-year graduate student and a returned Peace Corps education volunteer who served in South Africa. I am currently in the Peace Corps sponsored Coverdell Fellow program sponsored by the Stevenson Center and am in the Applied Community and Economic Development Program. Illinois State University in Normal has certainly done its part as one of the top volunteer-producing university. Since the program’s inception, Illinois State has sent nearly 600 volunteers to serve overseas in the Peace Corps.
As I swore into the Peace Corps with my cohort of 37 in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa referred to us as “grassroots ambassadors,” a pretty accurate description of our mission. During my time in South Africa, I worked with the Desmond Tutu foundation to bring 500 desks to my village of Maphoitsile in the Northwest Province. I started a little library with 3,00o books and hosted a Nelson Mandela Day. The PEPFAR program was a rousing success has saved 20 million lives, and has been crucial in preventing millions of HIV infections in over 50 countries. PEPFAR has also enabled 2.8 million babies to be born HIV-free to mothers living with HIV. Initiatives like PEPFAR, Girls Leading Our World and former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let Girls Learn” are just a few of initiatives sorely missed during the pandemic.
Idealism, optimism and the can-do spirit of the Peace Corps is needed now more than ever during these trying times. As underlined in the 2019 landmark documentary about the Peace Corps “A Towering Task”, every presidential administration on both sides of the aisle, from Carter to Reagan to Bush have touted the value of volunteer overseas service. As we all hope for a quick return of all the volunteers into the field in all the countries the Peace Corps serves, it has become apparent that in a post-pandemic world, the U.S. Peace Corps will be needed more than ever. The Peace Corps is back.
During the summer on 2022, Jeff volunteered to help Ukraine refugees at the Polish Red Cross, UNICEF and the Modlinska Global Refugee Center in Warsaw, Poland.
Jeff is currently a Coverdell Fellow and Political Science major in the Applied Community and Economic Development Sequence at the Stevenson Center at Illinois State University at Normal.