Virginia Pesqueira

In service to country

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The phrase “in service to country” is usually attributed to men and women who serve in the military and give much of their time away from home, and sometimes even their lives, to contribute to a cause. Whether or not the cause is one of their choosing, they believe it will make a difference for themselves, their family, their community and their country. The United States has been blessed with many such military personnel, including many Latinos who have given of themselves for the greater good.

Peace Corps volunteers have also given of their time away from home, to serve their country in foreign lands for the greater good. Unfortunately, not much has been written or mentioned about these volunteers, whose talents and contributions have made a difference for the people in the countries they have served – and for themselves.

Sometimes the Peace Corps is dismissed as something peaceniks join between graduation and growing up. While the Peace Corps’ mission is to promote world peace and friendship, it does much more than that, and with volunteers of all ages who work in other countries as well as the U.S., with local governments, communities, schools and entrepreneurs to help them become self-sustaining in areas of education, health, the environment, agriculture, youth development, information technology and business development.

The Peace Corps has an interesting history, despite its lack of media attention. When Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey introduced the first Peace Corps bill in 1957, the senator received a lukewarm response to the concept. His more conservative peers thought it was dangerous to send young American volunteers to far reaches of the globe; others thought it was an impractical idea.

Three years later during his presidential campaign, Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged a group of 10,000 students at the University of Michigan and asked them if they would be willing to serve their country “in the cause of peace” by living and working in developing countries. This time the response was energetic.

During his inauguration speech, when President Kennedy made the famous decree, “Do not ask what the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” many young people took his call to action seriously. On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps.

In 1981, Congress passed legislation to make the Peace Corps an independent federal agency. In that same decade, the Peace Corps celebrated its 25th anniversary, and established the first Peace Corps Fellows Program at Columbia University to recruit returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) as public school teachers in New York City. In exchange for a two-year work commitment, the RPCVs were offered scholarships for graduate study.

In 1995, director Mark D. Gearan launched Crisis Corps (now called Peace Corps Response), a new program that allows returned volunteers to provide short-term assistance during natural disasters and humanitarian crises. By 1998, Crisis Corps volunteers were serving in Guinea, Bolivia, Paraguay, Papua New Guinea, and other countries. In the last 10 years, volunteers have responded to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the 2005 tsunami, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

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