Thursday, March 3, 2011

Celebrating 50 at 23!

In a 2am impromptu presidential campaign address in 1960 to 5,000 students at the University of Michigan, then-Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students to contribute two years of their lives to helping people in countries of the developing world. On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, establishing the Peace Corps on a temporary pilot basis. Exactly 50 years later, on March 1, 2011, the Peace Corps is celebrating its 50th anniversary and I am serving my 6th month in the post-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Neither President Kennedy nor I could have ever imagined this! I am forever grateful to President Kennedy for his forward thinking, as I am sure many people around the world are as well. Over 200,000 current and former PCVs have served in 139 countries.

On September 22, 1961, after the first group of volunteers was sent to Ghana, Congress approved legislation for the Peace Corps, giving it the mandate to “promote world peace and friendship” through a mission statement that continues today. It is this mission statement that I wish to focus on. Fittingly, the mandate says nothing of technical training or teaching English; it simply says ‘promote world peace and friendship’. This mandate should serve as an important reminder to all readers, as well as myself, that above all else, the goal of the Peace Corps is to create lasting relationships of respect and understanding between Americans and their local counterparts. This is best exemplified by a story written by Jessica, a fellow volunteer and friend here in Azerbaijan.

Jessica’s father was born in a poor, rural village in the Dominican Republic. There was a volunteer in his small village when he was growing up. Jessica’s father remembers the volunteer, a man named Hall from Nebraska. Apparently, Hall started a Boy Scout troop in the town and created a cinema. Jessica’s father also remembers a married couple that formed a group for housewives and two other volunteers who taught arts and crafts. He remembers the volunteers being a very positive influence on the community, and the youth in particular -- showing them so many things and giving them so many ideas they did not know before.

With regards to her father’s memories, Jessica said it best, and despite the fact that she will give me a hard time for this, there is no way I can say it better.
Peace Corps isn't just about the transfer of technical skills from Volunteers to members of their communities -- it's about forming connections with people, creating memories, however small, that continue to enrich and inform our lives as citizens of the world.
Thank you Jessica!

On March 1, President Obama asserted,
With each village that now has access to clean water, each young woman who has received an education, and each family empowered to prevent disease because of the service of a Peace Corps Volunteer, President Kennedy's noble vision lives on.
I would just like to add to President Obama’s always eloquent words, as it clear from Jessica’s father’s story:
For every new friend I make and every cup of tea I sip, for every dinner invitation I receive, every question about my family in America I am asked, and every high-five I give, President Kennedy’s and the late Sargent Shriver’s noble vision lives on.

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