March 1, 2011 will mark fifty years since President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. Since then more than 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. Over 13,000 of them have come from Oregon and Washington.
One of those volunteers, Chris Miller, started his tour in Ukraine a year ago. When he arrived people asked him if he was a “shpion,” or spy. He’s not, of course, but the questions served as a harsh reminder that despite one’s best intentions, it’s difficult to connect with people when you’re the outsider. Things have gotten better for Chris since then. His friends have started giving him canned foods as gifts, which he says is “a real sign of appreciation.”
Another volunteer, Cathy Rothenberger, served in Belize in the early nineties. At the time Belize had an extremely high youth population, so it was critical to find a way to integrate them into the economic development of the country. She organized entrepreneurial programs in schools and taught business skills to young people. Her most powerful memory, she says, was taking one of her students to a entrepreneurial competition in neighboring Honduras. “In an environment like that someone like her could go into her shell, so to speak, but she didn’t. She really shined.” After serving in the Peace Corps Cathy continued to work in International Development. Now an employee at Mercy Corps, she recently moved back to Portland after living abroad for most of her adult life.
But some Peace Corps volunteers say they gain more as volunteers than they give to the communities they’re serving. And like many government agencies, the Peace Corps may face a tough road ahead: the House of Representatives recently voted to cut its budget by 17%.
The Peace Corps is planning events across the country to celebrate its birthday. In Portland, the Oregon Historical Society is hosting an exhibit that will feature artifacts, oral histories, and photographs, collected from Peace Corps volunteers around the Northwest.
We’ll be talking to several returned Peace Corps volunteers, one current, and one who will soon depart. Their experiences span the globe from Belize City to eastern Ukraine. We’ll talk about mud huts and apartments, power outages and WiFi. We’ll also talk about how some Peace Corps volunteers take their experience and turn it into a career.
Have you or someone you know served in the Peace Corps? What impact did you have on the community you served? What impact did they have on you?
- Melanie Forthun: Public Affairs Specialist for the Peace Corps
- Chris Miller: Peace Corps volunteer serving in Ukraine
- Connie Ross: Soon to be Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia
- Cathy Rothenberger: Director of Recruitment and Retention at Mercy Corps