Tuesday, March 1, 2011
PEACE CORPS AT 50: SERVICE, ONE VOLUNTEER AT A TIME
Growing up, our first glimpse of “real Americans” (aside of course from Vic Morrow or Ric Jason in the TV series “Combat”) were Mormon missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers.
The Peace Corps marks its 50th anniversary today.
It’s a remarkable institution born in the heat of the Cold War, a tool to win hearts and minds in the world’s impoverished backwoods, offering perhaps the most benign projection of American global ambitions in the pre-globalization era.
President Kennedy is widely credited with creating the Peace Corps although the idea had percolated for much longer. He talked about it while campaigning for the White House in 1960.
On March 1, 1961 he signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps “to promote world peace and friendship”.
About six months later, the first Peace Corps volunteers arrived in the Philippines to teach English, mathematics and science in far-flung barrios.
At a sortie in a remote Sagada, Mountain Province barangay many years ago, we were astonished to find tots speaking impeccable English, much better we thought, than kids in Manila’s exclusive schools.
Blame it on the Peace Corps.
More than 8,000 Peace Corps volunteers – the most in any country – have served in the Philippines over the past 50 years.
The Philippines is such a favorite destination that there is even a “Peace Corps Wiki” site that provides a “packing list for the Philippines”.
It urges female volunteers to pack 5-8 bras which they “must wear”, reminding them that larger-sized bras may be difficult to find in rural stores.
It also recommended “modest” one-piece bathing suits.
A Swiss Army knife is a “necessity” and suggested they bring pictures of their family or pets to have something to talk about with their new-found Pinoy pals (it also urges them to bring American-made hard candies because they are apparently a favorite “pasalubong” or welcome gift).
We’ve heard countless anecdotes about the work of the Peace Corps especially in our home province of Iloilo, where they apparently had an extensive presence.
Their work is felt more profoundly in the countrysides where the lack of services often leave them the only real catalysts for progress.
Their only real protection is the affection and gratitude of the people they help. Of the three most serious incidents, no Peace Corps volunteer was harmed in the communities they served.
Sixteen Peace Corps volunteers have died while in service in the Philippines.
In April 2007, Fairfax, Virginia resident Julia Campbell was killed in a botched robbery in the mountain town of Batad, Ifugao. She was playing tourist to see the famed Ifugao rice terraces.
In August 1998, aquaculture and fisheries expert Robert Bock of Chincoteague, Virginia was killed by heavily armed highway robbers in Iloilo. He was travelling with nine other jeepney passengers.
The Peace Corps suspended its Philippine operations in June 1990 after New People’s Army rebels abducted Timothy Swanson of Cheyenne, Wyoming in Negros Island.
He was released unharmed after 50 days.
But their tales of horror are easily outnumbered by the stories Peace Corps volunteers take back Stateside.
We ran into the story of Lynn Kennedy who spent two years in the Philippines. She related to Cleveland .com writer Brian Albrecht how she fought off a snatcher with her umbrella.
But she believes “the Philippines has the most wonderful, friendliest and kindest people I’ve ever encountered.”
“I saw people with absolutely nothing and yet I found them to be content and so happy.”