Today is the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Peace Corps. Chances are you know someone who served during those past four decades. Perhaps, as with me, it is your own son or daughter.
I never stop being proud that my daughter is a Peace Corps volunteer. I remember hearing how her departure from Washington was regimented, on fast-forward.
Arrive. Meet 28 group members. Get shots. Accept the medicine. Take off for Africa within 24 hours. Land in the desert. Learn about snakes and spiders, tribes and chiefs, rice and peanut sauce, tea and millet.
The Peace Corps marketing slogan tells recruits it's ``The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love.'' That's no fiction. A group of 28 can easily shrink to 18 or 19 before assignments end. They leave for medical reasons or out of frustration, from loneliness or stress. Malaria ravages their bodies, or they can't tolerate the darkness in a village brightened only by small fires.
It may take a volunteer's entire time abroad to accomplish a few tangible goals. For instance: teaching village women to construct mud stoves that use less wood and reduce the number of trees needed for cooking, or planting eucalyptus trees to provide leaves for medicinal purposes as well as lumber if the village decides to build a school.
Tally after two years: eight stoves, 200 trees, new habits.
President John F. Kennedy established this voluntary overseas service in the hope it would lead to world peace and friendship. One goal was to help people in developing countries by providing workers trained in education, agriculture, health and business. Today, new Peace Corps initiatives also combat HIV and AIDS, expand access to information technology and preserve biodiversity.
Another goal was to promote a better understanding of Americans among the people they served and worked with. A third goal, many returned Peace Corps volunteers contend, is accomplished here at home after service is over. They promote a better understanding of other peoples among Americans. Returned Peace Corps volunteers share their experiences, perspectives and insights. In classrooms around the country every March 1, they talk about their work to students.
Today, there are 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers and trainees working on projects in 76 countries, according to the Peace Corps Web site (www.peacecorps.gov). Their contribution to mutual understanding across borders is not to be underestimated. They are ambassadors of the United States and to the United States.
This anniversary, seek out those who have served in the Peace Corps. You don't need to plan a parade or declare a holiday or give them a veteran's preferential treatment in hiring. Just tell them you'll never stop being proud of them. That's what I'll write to my daughter in a letter she will bike 25 miles to find.
Dwyre Garton is a free-lance writer in Appleton, Wis. Write her in care of the Progressive Media Project, 409 E. Main St., Madison WI 53703. Distributed by KRT News Service.