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Thursday February 22, 2024

Rallying Point

NPCA’s Continuation of Service program makes volunteering easy—and accessible—for RPCVs

by Eva Sundgrenz

Nearly 400 volunteers came to restore the Gulf of Mexico in Mobile Bay, AL and worked alongside The
Nature Conservancy scientists and partners to construct the first quarter mile of an oyster reef.

Peace Corps service instills an ethos of growth through giving back that still drives Returned Peace Corps Volunteers today. Volunteerism is declining across the United States, according to Philanthropy News Digest, but RPCVs understand the personal enrichment that comes from service done right. We have firsthand experience of the profound fulfillment offered by meaningful volunteer opportunities with visible community impact, versus passive acts such as signing petitions or donating money. In the current social and political climate, we must keep this distinctive spark of service alive by engaging in actions that have purpose beyond ourselves. That doesn’t mean preaching morals; it means embracing opportunities to make positive change by empowering others and supporting causes aligned with issues we care about.

The Continuation of Service program, the new post-service volunteer platform matching RPCVs with new opportunities to engage with communities, is a testament to NPCA’s commitment to community, democracy, and well-being. By connecting Volunteers to opportunities that strengthen the social fabric of our communities, we create positive interactions that can bridge divides. It’s well known that volunteering can positively impact individuals’ mental health; it can also foster democracy as volunteers get to know their community better and contribute to the collective good.

At its core, this initiative is meant to link returned Volunteers with opportunities for domestic service. Such partnerships can enhance RPCVs’ skills and allow us to explore fields that align with Peace Corps’ mission. NPCA recognizes the challenges of transitioning from service. For RPCVs returning home in 2024, the Continuation of Service program emphasizes the importance of well-being and offers a source of peer connections and support.

“For domestic harmony, international peace, and democracy to be possible, there must be a foundation of empathy. We need to understand each other’s hopes, dreams, strengths, and challenges,” says Greg Van Kirk (Guatemala 2001–03), author of the new book It’s What You Set in Motion: A Toolbox for Collaborative Changemaking. “We need to be able to work across differences. Volunteerism helps to build that foundation. And it helps to create connections with a shared sense of purpose.” As of January 2024, the Continuation of Service program has partnered with the following organizations to bring such opportunities to all RPCVs:

Museum of the Peace Corps Experience
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for Environmental Action
Peace Corps Community for Refugees
Reading Partners
Immigrant & Refugee Outreach Center (IROC)
The Nature Conservancy
Water Engineers for the Americas (WEFTA)
The Oral History Project
National Peace Corps Association Advocacy

Overseas experiences equip Volunteers with invaluable skills for domestic service, including cross-cultural fluency, linguistic dexterity, and the ability to connect with people from different backgrounds. With extensive experience in bridging communication gaps, returned Volunteers can facilitate mutual understanding in America’s diverse landscape. Living abroad also fosters an attitude of adaptability in Volunteers, enabling us to make quick, effective contributions in the face of new domestic challenges post-service. Resource-constrained Peace Corps settings enhance creative problem-solving and resourcefulness—invaluable skills that many national nonprofits are always in need of.

“Service and volunteerism are opportunities to really learn about those around you, those who live miles down the street and have a vastly different experience from you,” says Ariana Lotfi, founder of the Immigrant & Refugee Outreach Center (IROC), which supports refugees and asylum seekers from around the world by delivering both immediate and long-term assistance in navigating life in the U.S. “Through this newfound understanding,” Lofti says, “you can work toward improving their experience. And through that process, you ultimately really strengthen the fabric of democracy and of the community.”

Indeed, Peace Corps’ emphasis on Volunteers’ integration into their host country’s culture makes RPCVs adept at building relationships and addressing the unique needs of different communities—crucial skills for effective domestic volunteer service.

For example, by working with NPCA, Water Engineers for the Americas, or WEFTA (see p. 20), aims to harness Volunteers’ ser- vice-oriented spirit not only to improve water access and sanitation, but also to contribute significantly to the larger goal of global peace. “Our organizational strengths will enable us to create a more extensive and impactful footprint in communities worldwide, fostering collaboration, inclusivity, and community-led development,” says Tim Wellman, executive director of WEFTA.

“I learned about using your voice through the power of writing by researching articles based on the topic chosen and creating a way to reach audiences through letter writing,” says Teyana Sackey, a participant in Environmental Action’s Letters to the Editor Workshop, one of NPCA’s Continuation of Service projects. “This program has helped me grow my voice through writing.”

Opportunities for Engagement

The Continuation of Service program offers both in-person and virtual openings, a major benefit for NPCA members of different ages and abilities, and with different constraints on their availability. As young professionals pursue their careers and take on more responsibilities, for instance, volunteering often falls by the wayside. In response, the program has built in customizable commitments that respect Volunteers’ time limitations, allowing members with family, work, and other obligations to incorporate service into busy schedules.

This initiative also facilitates service for those managing varying physical needs by offering opportunities that are accessible to Volunteers with limited mobility or disability, and by providing remote openings that over- come transportation-related barriers. While some senior Volunteers may be restricted by declining mobility, virtual roles that respect their physical limits ensure they will also be able to participate. NPCA’s Continuation of Service program seeks to engage members’ desire for continued impact regardless of their stage of life.

The Continuation of Service program is also a compelling reason to become an NPCA member. NPCA provides returned Volunteers with a platform for action, for making a difference, and for convening our community around the greater good.

Eva Sundgrenz is NPCA’s Continuation of Service Program Manager. You can reach her at [email protected]