(KUNM Airdate: 3/28/06)

This month (March 2006), the Peace Corps marks its 45th anniversary. Five returned Peace Corps volunteers share stories and give their perspective on the history of the corps. A current Peace Corps volunteer in Africa who is helping a community deal with the AIDS epidemic is interviewed. The program also features a conversation with current Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez.

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Joseph Garcia
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

CAROL BOSS (HOST): How does the Peace Corps create peace?

JOSEPH GARCIA: Peace Corps - through our reputation and the work we've done over these past, forty-five years - could possibly be the salvation of US foreign policy, in my opinion. From my study, experience and research, I've realized that what's going on with the United States, in regards to our foreign policy, is that a situation has developed where a lot of people, with very little international experience, are at the forefront of US foreign policy. They aren't educated in the histories, languages and cultures of these countries. Thus, Peace Corps (counters that) lack of understanding, lack of education...

DAVE DAVENPORT: America's image in the world, as far as I can imagine, is at an all-time low. It just could hardly be worse. My hope for the Peace Corps is that it is able to expand more into some Muslim countries. I really think we need to get Americans abroad, learning about other cultures, religions, languages and creating a much more positive image of our country abroad.

To add on that, I was in my rural community in Panama when a very weathered, old man walked down the path and said, "Do you know what your country did today? They just declared war on Iraq." That, in a very humiliating way, was an example of how, as volunteers, we are the face of the US. We are left to do the explaining for issues and situations that come up which are completely out of our control. As Joseph says, in terms of diplomacy, volunteers are doing a lot of the "grunt" work.

Dave Davenport
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

Lauren Koller
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

BOSS: How about a couple of stories about the impact your work had on the people and communities you have lived and worked with?

KOLLER: I just finished in June 2005 and in December I returned. When I was in my community in Panama, we had submitted a proposal and received funding to build a local community center, a municipal office. When I returned in December, I saw the building. Everything was great. I was asking someone about the day it was completed. They told me how well everything went. They stopped and asked, "Laurena, where you there that day? Had you already left?" I had actually gotten up to speak at the inauguration, helped cut the ribbon. The ironic, but wonderful part about that was that they didn't remember if I was there, which meant it was something so important to them, and that they felt so much a part of - not something someone implanted and then left. It was integral in the community's development process. It was a wonderful feeling. It was not what I was doing; it was what people were motivated to do for themselves.

Arne Vanderburg
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

DAVENPORT: I went back to Thailand last year with a portion of the Peace Corps called the Crisis Corps, which is designed for former Peace Corps volunteers to go back, in times of crisis, to the countries where they had served. I went back, with several others, to Thailand, following the tsunami. I started going around a camp with a young Thai woman who was working on her Master's Degree in psychology. These were families, jammed into little, tiny rooms, thirteen feet by eighteen feet. All of their possessions were on the floor. The walls were terribly flimsy; there was no place to hang anything. I realized, visiting those families, that, for a very small amount of money and with a little bit of effort, our group could put together shelves, clothes hangers, simple things to help people store their belongings off the damp floor. In every room in the camp, we put a long, eight-foot shelf with a clothes rod underneath it. We built cabinets and shelves. I honestly had the feeling that we were doing something that, in a small way, made their day-to-day lives a lot better. I felt very happy about it.

Jan Vanderburg
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

Anna Skinner
Peace Corps Volunteer In Namibia

BOSS: In talking today with our panel of Peace Corps volunteers, they also said that it was a challenge for them to transition to a new culture. How has that experience been for you, especially these days, when it's said that Americans abroad are not as welcomed as they once were, and that safety is a concern?

ANNA SKINNER - Peace Corps Volunteer on Duty in Namibia, Africa: The transition was interesting for me. My site is a rather large and developed town, where I had a lot of conveniences and a similar lifestyle, in many ways, to that which I had in the United States. I do not feel that I had a lot that I, personally, needed to adjust to. I think that served as an illusion sometimes. Even though it looked and felt, at times, like things were something akin to what I knew on the other side of the ocean, my actual work in getting to know the people and culture - the way things actually operate - threw me. I thought this was like home, but it really is not like home, at all. In terms of my safety, how I have been perceived here as an American, I have felt very welcomed. I have felt nothing but curiosity, inquisitive perspective, from people who are meeting me. I can think of two negative comments or experiences that I have had, but, otherwise, people have welcomed me and wanted to ask me questions.

BOSS: Are there typical questions that are asked of you? What do they want to know?

SKINNER: There are, and I always find them funny. A big one is, don't I know Brittany Spears, or don't I know Eminem? Everyone is waiting to hear about Jennifer Lopez, as if she is my next-door neighbor and best friend.

BOSS: Has there been any change in the numbers of people signing up for the Peace Corps since the September 11 attacks in 2001?

GADDI VASQUEZ- Peace Corps Director:
In 2004, we achieved a twenty-nine-year high in the number of volunteers. In 2005, we achieved a thirty-year high in the number of volunteers.

BOSS: What do you think is driving that interest?

VASQUEZ: This is anecdotal information, based on discussions with thousands of volunteers as I travel. Many of them recount to me a sense of responsibility, a sense that they need and want to contribute something to better understanding, to promoting the ideal of peace and, also, to getting to understand the world a little better.

BOSS: You quote a former US Ambassador to the Philippians as saying, "There is no US program that yields greater return for the taxpayers' dollar than the Peace Corps." Do you believe that's true?

VASQUEZ: Absolutely. I do not know of any other organization that could provide 7,800+ volunteers to seventy-six countries for a budget that is just a bit above three hundred million dollars per year.

BOSS: If it is such an effective yield for the taxpayers' dollar and, given a four hundred billion dollar military budget, why is it so hard to get more money for the Peace Corps?

VASQUEZ: Congress has increased our budget over the past four years. We have seen a continued interest in Congress to increase our budget. While it has not been at the levels, which we requested, we realize Congress has to weigh many priorities. We believe Congress is recognizing the value in the work of the Peace Corps. That is evidenced by the fact that, the last, four years in a row, Congress has increased our funding.

Peace Corps Director
Gaddi Vasquez

BOSS: How active is the Peace Corps in the Muslim world?

VASQUEZ: Right now, about twenty percent of the volunteers who serve in the Peace Corps are serving in the Muslim world. We are having great success, in some countries. We have done so now for twenty, thirty and forty years. This has been a very positive relationship with countries throughout the world and we continue to see an expansion in those areas.

BOSS: Outside of volunteering, what could Americans, who believe in the Peace Corps mission, do to help?

VASQUEZ: Most importantly, what every American can do is to steer young Americans - and not just the young, exclusively, but Americans in general - who have an inclination or predisposition to do international work and to go oversees to encourage them to look toward the Peace Corps. If there are Americans who have an inclination to really embark on what's been called the toughest job you'll ever love, then visiting the Peace Corps website at is a place to start. There, we can begin to acquaint an individual with the possibilities of service

(transcription courtesy Rogi Riverstone)