One year after evacuation from the Philippines: A Peace Corps Volunteer on the trauma of leaving see more
One year after being evacuated from the Philippines, a Peace Corps Volunteer faces the trauma of leaving, the country he returned to, and a question that’s impossible to answer.
By Rok Locksley
Work and friendship: Rok Locksley, left, with Ban-Ban Nicolas. Photo courtesy Rok Locksley
The last day of my Peace Corps service was Friday, March 13, 2020. Together with my wife, Genevieve, I was serving in the Peace Corps in the Philippines. We had gotten up early to enjoy the sunrise on what we knew would be our last day on the island that had become our home.
My counterpart was Ban-Ban Nicolas, with whom I was collaborating on marine conservation efforts on an island near Cebu. I called him Ban2x. And over the course of service, we developed a deep friendship.
Ban2x arrived at our host family’s house early in the morning in his family car. He would shuttle us to the seaport. Airports had already shuttered. He knew we were on the last boat off the island, and he wanted to make sure we got to the port safely.
We loaded our bags into his car, and he promised to look after our things, to check in on our dogs and our house. At this point we thought we were just being consolidated: all Volunteers gathered together temporarily. On the drive, Ban2x and I made promises to keep each other updated and what the estimates were for returning after consolidation — we were speaking in that awkward way that you do when you have so much you want to say but lack the words or ability to properly express how much you value the other person.
As I made my way onto the bridge to the boat that would carry me literally and figuratively out to sea, I turned for one last look at my friend and said, “It’s not goodbye, just until we see each other again.”
We got out of the car and I could see tears welling up in his eyes. I could feel them in mine. We lingered until the last possible minute. As I made my way onto the bridge to the boat that would carry me literally and figuratively out to sea, I turned for one last look at my friend and said, “It’s not goodbye, just until we see each other again.”
I got on the boat, found a seat, and sat down gingerly. Everything was moving in a surreal way. At first I thought it was the rocking waves, but then I started to feel my world crashing around me. There was everything we had left behind: our project, our year-old dogs who had cried and tried to squirm under the fence to get in the car as we drove away. My host family, with tears in their eyes. My coworkers, their faces grimaced in shock when I told them the day before that I had to leave.
I began the journey back to the United States, but I would not be returning home. My home was in the Philippines.
Where do we go from here? Photo by Rok Locksley
The boat carried us to a larger island where we met up with other Peace Corps Volunteers. We managed to catch the last boat off of that island, and we sat there on the top deck of a ferry, rocking in the sea, surrounded by tourists trying to figure out if they should stay or go. As for us 30 Volunteers, we were shell-shocked and broken, leaving through no choice of our own. We didn’t really talk. What was there to say?
About two hours into the five-hour ferry trip, our phones chirped and pinged and vibrated at the same time with an alert. It was an ominous sound, and it carried a message that changed our lives. The director of the Peace Corps had declared the evacuation of all Volunteers. That is how we found out that our service was over: On a boat, rocking in the sea, carrying what random items we had shoved into our backpacks in a state of trauma. Some of us cried. Some tried to call their families. Some stared off across the waves, trying to soak up the last of the Philippines. Most, like me, were simply in shock. And desperately trying to figure out what to do next.
Back in the States, we could not go to my parents’ house or my wife’s parents’ house, because of COVID-19. I knew that the evacuation route would take us through numerous airports, and I was sure I was getting exposed. The risk was not worth it to my family; health and age put them in the at-risk population. My grandparents’ house was out. My uncles and aunts had young kids. We literally had nowhere to go.
I timidly reached out to a few people, inquiring about whether it might perhaps be possible maybe that … They made it clear, gently but firmly, that they did not want to risk the fact that I might be bringing the virus, especially coming from Southeast Asia. I understood.
We had given up ties in the States to join the Peace Corps. We had no house, no car, no job waiting. All that was waiting for us stateside: the terrifying horror of the unknown. Unknown if we had the virus. Unknown where we would sleep when we landed. Unknown where we could get health care or insurance or a job or food or winter clothes. Aside from what we carried, what possessions we owned were in a storage unit. And I was not sure how I was going to make the next payment on that.
As I was making calls from the boat and, later, from a hotel, trying to figure out where exactly we should attempt to fly to in the United States, a fellow Volunteer overheard my struggle. His family had a summer cabin in the Midwest. It wasn’t summer. But he offered it as a place of landing to us and a few other evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers for the mandatory two-week quarantine. We had no option other than the Peace Corps reimbursement for staying in a hotel. We gratefully chose the EPCV cabin.
The Facebook group for evacuated Volunteers was one of the few places we didn’t have to explain to others why this transition was so difficult, why we all felt lost at sea.
We ended up living there in quarantine from March until June. Three months of trying to make sense of what had happened — and was still happening around us. Three months of sleepless nights and tearful mornings. Three months of confusion, loss, and desperation. Three months of writing resumes and filling out applications. Three months of Zoom interviews and those awful hopes that come with searching for a job: of failing again and again. Three months of struggling alongside my fellow evacuees to find our new place in the pandemic world. Three months of every other American dealing with a new world and none of them understanding what had happened to us. The Facebook EPCV group was one of the few places we didn’t have to explain to others why this transition was so difficult, why we all felt lost at sea.
I talked to Ban2x at least once a week. That helped a bit. In the EPCV cabin, we shared our struggles with one another and tried to help others as best we could. Mostly we sat staring into space, thinking about all that had been ripped away — and what we were supposed to do next. I cannot imagine what it was like for Volunteers who had chosen the lonely hotel room for mandatory quarantine.
After three months, with the warmth of summer finally arriving, there was a changing of our seasons, too: We started to get hired or accepted into graduate school. I was fortunate to receive a Peace Corps Fellowship. Some of us got federal jobs, thanks to non-completive eligibility that comes with status as a returned Volunteer. Without the support of the RPCV network, National Peace Corps Association’s meetings and seminars, and Jodi Hammer’s counsel and advice through the Global Reentry Program, I don’t think any of us would have made a good transition out of that cabin.
This is water. Photo courtesy Rok Locksley
The problem with that question
I have recently had a few Returned Peace Corps Volunteers ask me what the hardest part about the evacuation was. The problem with the question is its premise; it makes it seem like the evacuation is over. For me it is not.
I am building a place that is starting to feel like home again in Illinois. And we did manage to get one of our dogs to the States in the fall. (The rest were poisoned, we found out later). I have school to focus on, but the evacuation is not an easily packaged life event. It was trauma and I am still experiencing it, working through it, processing it.
Every time I talk to Ban2x, I am filled with conflict about abandoning my work and my friends. I question whether I should have stayed on my island — which has had fewer cases than my neighborhood here in Illinois. Did we make the right choice to return to the United States? I still find myself trying to discern a morally correct answer to this question.
The reason that we have adopted the signifier EPCVs rather RPCVs is because we all came back at the same time to a nightmare version of America that was nothing like what we had left. This was not the place often dreamed of in our desperate moments of homesickness. This was a foreign land to us. The restaurants closed, the markets eerily empty, wide eyes of fear peeking over new masks — and other faces with self-assured smirks.
There is also this strange aspect to coming back with more than 5,000 other Americans: The people I was competing with for jobs were my friends and fellow EPCVs. The person’s spot I took for my graduate program was a fellow evacuee. For every one of us who got a federal job or fellowship, that meant another EPCV did not. I don’t mean that in the abstract. I mean it literally. We would have Zoom meetings with members of our cohort and find out we were all in the final round for the same job. Only one of us could get it.
I had previously met a few people who had lost their homes due to fire or other circumstances beyond their control. People who have walked out of a strange airport in a strange land without any idea of what to do next — but carrying a hope that life would get better. People who have relied on the charity and goodwill of others to survive. A year later these experiences are much less hypothetical and much more real. It helps me to understand their situation and seek out guidance from them.
Today, on the year anniversary of our evacuation, I had a conversation with my counterpart and best friend, Ban2x. Over the past year, we have kept in contact every week, updating each other on our lives, hopes, and dreams — all the while following up on the final steps of our project, which is finally almost at fruition. Ban2x and his wife go for regular rides on the bicycles that we left behind. They send photos over Messenger of their rides and adventures to some of our favorite spots. I get photos of gatherings in the community, and it is awesome to see folks in my community wearing clothes we left behind and using the items that didn’t make it into our suitcases in that frantic final morning packing session. A few months ago, Ban2x tried to send some of the more precious items to us, but international shipping costs during the pandemic made it effectively prohibitive. They were handed out or given away to our friends and co-workers.
The hardest part is that we are still going through it. Some of us are still waiting to return to service.
When we talk, Ban2x and I, each of us is searching for words trying to fill in those things are that are still left unsaid. We wonder when this will end, and what the world will look like when it does. He stays healthy and, because of the island’s precautions, the pandemic is less of a threat there than I feel here with my mandatory in-person classes. We plan for the theoretical reunion that might take place in the next few years. I talk about all the spots and things I want to share with him in America. He tells me about the changes in our community and celebrations I have missed. Ban2x, always the optimist, smiles and says things that would translate to something along the lines of “When the time is right” or “When fortune favors us.”
We laugh a bit more in recent weeks, but sometimes my laughs are a bit hollow. I know that I can’t just jump on a plane and visit anytime I want. And I can’t bring him here for a visit. I know it will be a few years before restrictions are lifted enough to allow us to visit our home again. Until then, despite the temporary roof over my head, my heart still feels homeless. I still feel like I am adrift on the sea, packed in with all the other EPCVs rocking in a boat with no port, and wondering what happens next.
That is what it is like to have been evacuated during the pandemic. Generally, my experience is too much go through just to answer the question “What was the hardest part?” The gap is too wide. The cut is still too deep. And although it is healing, it is a long way from being a faded memory.
Maybe the closest I can come to answering my fellow RPCVs’ questions about evacuation is this: The hardest part is that we are still going through it. Some of us are still waiting to return to service.
SHARE YOUR STORY
Are you a Volunteer who was evacuated because of COVID-19? Are you part of the Peace Corps community with a story to tell? Let us know: email@example.com.
Rok Locksley’s tribute to Ban2x in WorldView magazine, and evacuation stories of dozens of Peace Corps Volunteers from around the world.
“How can we transform this moment in Peace Corps history?” Rok Locksley takes part in a discussion with other evacuated Volunteers as part of the Global Ideas Summit Peace Corps Connect to the Future.
Rok Locksley served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Moldova from 2005–08. He then worked as a Recruiter for Peace Corps 2009–16 and went back for a second tour with his partner, Genevieve, in the Philippines 2018–20. Locksley is currently a Peace Corps Fellow at Western Illinois University. He intends to return to his island at the first possible opportunity.
In a time of global crisis, Lex Rieffel explores new ways forward for Peace Corps. see more
COVID-19 upended systems. Now we’re focused on structural racism like never before. So how can Peace Corps help this nation live up to its ideals?
By Lex Rieffel
Illustration by Sandra Dionsi / Theispot
The COVID-19 pandemic that erupted at the beginning of this year massively disrupted behavior that has for a long time been taken for granted — between people and between nations. Then in May the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman sparked unprecedented demonstrations around the world to end systemic racial discrimination and improve social justice.
Years will pass before new patterns of home life and work life become normal and before international relations achieve new forms of openness and interaction. Policies, programs, projects, and institutions will have to be adapted to meet this new reality. It will not be easy. It will require political will not seen since World War II, and a reckoning with racism that precedes the founding of the United States.
As it prepares to celebrate in 2021 its 60th year of working to make the world a better place, the Peace Corps, too, will have to change. Even the three goals announced at its founding will need to be reconsidered:
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Perhaps the focus should be less on training and more on meeting global challenges like climate change and conflict.
MY PEACE CORPS GROUP, India XVI, served in the mid-1960s. This was the heyday of the Peace Corps. It had blossomed to become a vibrant agency in less than ten years, with almost 16,000 Volunteers serving in scores of countries. Then the Vietnam War and President Nixon crippled both the supply of volunteers and the demand from host countries, reducing the number of serving Volunteers to under 5,000 in the early 1980s.
A passionate campaign in that decade produced enough bipartisan support in the Congress to stop the decline in the number of Volunteers and begin a slow buildup. However, three successive presidents — Clinton, Bush-43, and Obama — failed to achieve their election campaign pledges to double the number of serving Volunteers from the levels they had inherited; Clinton inherited some 5,400, Obama just over 7,000 — about the number now. There was insufficient support in the Congress for a bigger Peace Corps budget to overcome the opposition of a vocal minority. Voters seemed convinced that U.S. national security depended more on putting boots on the ground overseas than sneakers on the ground.
Anti-Peace Corps sentiment in the Congress has strengthened during the Trump Presidency. A bill was introduced in the House last year to defund the Peace Corps and attracted more than 100 votes. It’s easy to imagine the Peace Corps being defunded in a second Trump Administration. But it’s also possible to imagine a stronger Peace Corps emerging under a new president.
Revolutionary and Inclusive
Wearing my economist hat, here is my best guess about the supply and demand for Peace Corps Volunteers, regardless of who is elected in November.
It seems likely that more American men and women will be interested in joining the Peace Corps in the coming years because higher education and the job market in the USA have been so greatly disrupted. Even before the pandemic arrived, the job market was being reshaped by artificial intelligence, robotics, and other factors. The “normal” pattern of getting a full-time job with benefits was no longer the default option for many graduates. The gig economy was expanding visibly.
The pandemic has delivered a body blow to higher education that will almost certainly lead to dramatic changes. Already we see far more high school graduates exploring gap year options. More fundamentally, financial constraints are likely to reduce residential enrollment substantially for several years. College dropouts and people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, regardless of their age, may find the Peace Corps and other forms of public service to be appealing options.
The biggest unknown on the supply side is how the current debate on national service will play out. Too few Americans are aware of the existence of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Mandated by the Congress in the authorizing legislation for FY2017, the Commission issued its final report in March 2020, and held its public rollout on June 25. Its recommendations represent “a revolutionary and inclusive approach to service for Americans.”
The National Commission found compelling reasons “to cultivate a widespread culture of service” in the United States. Its report states that bold action is required, not incremental change. Its recommendations begin with “comprehensive civic education and service learning starting in kindergarten” and extend to making service-year opportunities so ubiquitous that “service becomes a rite of passage for millions of young adults.” If acted upon, the result will enhance national security and strengthen our democratic system.
The Commission proposes an ambitious goal of having 5 million Americans every year begin participating in military, national, or public service by 2031.
The Commission proposes an ambitious goal of having 5 million Americans every year begin participating in military, national, or public service by 2031. Among these, it calls for one million to be supported by federal funding, ten times the number currently supported. The Peace Corps is explicitly included in this vision, though the Commission does not recommend a specific number of Peace Corps Volunteers. It does explicitly call for an expansion of Peace Corps Response, making the program more accessible to older Americans and people with disabilities, with increased opportunities for “virtual” volunteering.
The pandemic could actually accelerate the idea of creating a voluntary national service norm, for women as well as men. Bipartisan legislation has already been introduced to scale up AmeriCorps and other domestic service programs. Experts and activists have called for establishing new programs for rapid employment of contact tracers and health workers to stop the pandemic in the USA. The ongoing demonstrations against racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have brought forth proposals for new community-based service initiatives. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) created in the Great Depression of the 1930s has been cited as a model for a form of service program that could emerge to reduce the highest unemployment rate the country has seen in the past 75 years: 14.7 percent at the end of April and 13.3 percent at the end of May.
The Peace Corps budget is a tiny part of the federal budget. For example, its appropriation of $410.5 million for FY2020 was less than two-tenths of one percent of the Defense Department’s budget request for weapons procurement. It shouldn’t take much political will in the Congress to double or triple the Peace Corps’ budget if there is growing voter support for national service. The crucial question will then become how many of the men and women seeking a service opportunity will be attracted to living in a foreign country. A big part of the answer will depend on evolving perceptions of the health and security risks of working outside the USA. Quite possibly, fewer Americans will want to spend two years in some remote village in a country they couldn’t find on a map, even with a promise of reliable internet access. On the other hand, some of the recently repatriated Peace Corps volunteers are continuing their service online, and forms of virtual service internationally may become more feasible and attractive.
In short, the supply could conceivably be sufficient to produce a Peace Corps with as many as 100,000 volunteers serving abroad by 2031, but that must be considered a best-case outcome.
The demand from host countries, by contrast, may be insufficient to even maintain the pre-pandemic level of 7,000 volunteers in the field. There will be an early test of this demand: how many of the 60-odd countries hosting volunteers before the pandemic erupted will welcome them back. The process of renegotiating programs with these countries will undoubtedly be challenging.
Who needs the Peace Corps?
In the 1960s, the whole world — even countries in the Communist Bloc — looked up to the USA with envy because of its high standard of living, its rich culture (movies, theaters, museums, etc.), its outstanding universities, its technological advances (putting men on the moon), its fight for civil rights, its enduring democratic political system, its international leadership. Few countries still look up to the USA in this comprehensive way. Over the past two decades or more, we have squandered our position of preeminence.
It seems extremely unlikely that the world will revert to the openness that existed a decade ago. There will be less trade, less tourism, less migration.
That’s just the beginning of the problem. The process of globalization led by the United States started slowing down with the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001 and halted with the Global Financial Crisis emanating from the USA in 2007–08. By 2015, globalization was unwinding. That was the year the refugee exodus from the Middle East quickly led most European countries to restrict immigration severely. Another big setback came with the Brexit vote in June 2016, followed a few months later by the election of President Trump on an anti-globalization platform. It seems extremely unlikely that the world will revert to the openness that existed a decade ago. There will be less trade, less tourism, less migration. Climate change is likely to produce more border closing than border opening.
In short, in a world where most governments are preoccupied with addressing internal problems and in which internet access is penetrating into the far corners of the globe, few countries are likely to need Peace Corps volunteers or want them.
At the same time, the rise of China and other countries forces us to reconsider our national security in a world where the U.S. population of 330 million represents barely 4 percent of Earth’s total population of 7.7 billion. Military power cannot possibly be enough to maintain the respect of the rest of the world. To some extent, this power seems to have made the rest fear the USA more than admire it. In this case, America’s national security may depend greatly on how well the rest of the world understands the positive features of our country. Promoting that understanding just happens to be the second goal of the Peace Corps.
FROM A DEEPER DIVE into the risk of border-related conflict in the coming decades emerges an argument that a “whole world peace corps” is needed more than lots of separate national Peace Corps-like programs. Thus, the most ambitious approach to reinventing the Peace Corps might be to transform the existing UN Volunteer program into a World Peace Corps, with every country establishing an affiliate. The U.S. Peace Corps, for example, would be rebranded as “World Peace Corps - USA.”
By contrast, the least ambitious vision for the post-pandemic Peace Corps would be to re-establish its recent level of 7,000 serving volunteers, making the adjustments necessary to restore programs with previous host countries and find some new ones. This should be doable — though it’s important not to underestimate the complexities that will arise.
So, what is the most impactful and politically feasible approach that the large “Peace Corps family” should pursue? A time of crisis like today’s provides an ideal opportunity to assess and debate alternatives. For this reason, the National Peace Corps Association is convening a summit on July 18 to explore the future of Peace Corps — and the broader Peace Corps community.
Among options worth considering: programs that bring to the USA as many volunteers from countries hosting Peace Corps volunteers as we send to them.
There are a number of options worth considering between a World Peace Corps and reverting to the barely visible program of the past 40 years. Most important among them may be two-way service programs: programs that bring to the USA as many volunteers from countries hosting Peace Corps volunteers as we send to them. This was part of Sargent Shriver’s vision back in the 1960s, but it was a nonstarter with the U.S. Congress. Now we have to ask ourselves why any country negotiating with the Peace Corps would fail to insist on a two-way program.
The resistance, sadly, will be within the USA, despite the fact that there is an abundance of service work that men and women from foreign countries could usefully do here. Disaster relief is just one obvious area. Few Americans know that thousands of individuals in Ireland raised more than $3 million for the Navajo nation to help fight the pandemic. Firefighters have come from as far away as Australia to battle wildfires in California and other states.
Teaching is probably the most interesting area for two-way service. Think of the benefits of having at least one foreign teacher in every middle school and high school in the USA. They could teach foreign languages, geography, music, sports, and more. Their counterparts, Americans serving as volunteer teachers abroad, would do the same.
This could be the easiest way to build on the Third Goal of the Peace Corps in the post-pandemic world: helping Americans to better understand people in the rest of the world. It would also represent a strong step to counter allegations that the Peace Corps is a manifestation of “white saviorism.”
Such a two-way teaching program could be established within the State Department (like the Fulbright and the Humphrey programs) or under the Corporation for National and Community Service. But there is one glaring problem here.
Anti-Peace Corps sentiment in the Congress won’t go away in a post-Trump administration. A bigger, better, bolder Peace Corps in its current form as a federal agency may well be a political nonstarter even under a Democratic administration. If so, converting the Peace Corps from a U.S. government agency to an independent, private sector NGO might represent the best chance to build an international service program that continues to be “the best face of America overseas.”
With a nonpartisan board of trustees composed of eminent personalities, this NGO could be generously funded by individual donors, foundations, and corporations, as well as receiving core grants from the federal budget. Largely freed from government fetters, it could iterate toward an array of programs of international service that contribute materially to a more peaceful and prosperous world. Operating within this organization, the Peace Corps could remain the gold standard of international service.
Yet now we have a fresh challenge — which is also coming to terms with a very old problem. To remain the gold standard, the Peace Corps will have to become more diverse, more inclusive. The report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service has noted that our existing federal service programs have primarily benefited people from better educated and higher income families. This is true about the Peace Corps as much as other programs.
I hope readers will not simply “stay tuned” for a report from the National Peace Corps Association following the July 18 summit. I hope they will weigh in with constructive comments. For sure, there will be no consensus on how the Peace Corps should evolve, but I believe that the members of the Peace Corps family — more than 200,000 strong — are in the best position to understand the challenges and find a sensible way forward.
Lex Rieffel (India 1965–67) is a nonresident fellow with the Stimson Center. He served two years of active duty in the U.S. Navy before joining the Peace Corps. He has been an economist with the Treasury Department and USAID, a senior advisor for the Institute of International Finance, and a scholar at the Brookings Institution.
A group to link evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers with the help they need see more
A group to link evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers with the help they need. Sometimes that’s just someone to listen — and hear.
By Steven Boyd Saum
The day after Peace Corps informed Volunteers around the globe that they were being evacuated, a new group took shape to help them: Returned Peace Corps COVID-19 Evacuation Support [Community-Generated] was launched by returned Volunteer Joshua Johnson. The group had 200 members within the first hour. By the end of the day on March 16 that number had grown to 2,000. Soon nearly 10,000 returned Volunteers and parents joined. And a dozen administrators began to chip in to manage it.
There were outpourings of sympathy and dismay and immediate offers of help: A place to stay for self-quarantine in Boston or Tucson, Baltimore or Seattle, Central Pennsylvania or East Tennessee. A welcome home and a ride from the airport in Washington or Syracuse, Columbus or LAX (with free air hugs). A grocery run in New York. Questions about what’s the status of Volunteers evacuating from Ethiopia and Morocco, Indonesia and Panama.
Evacuations differed country by country, and so did instructions from country directors. So questions for the group were legion: about readjustment allowances and benefits, health insurance and reimbursement for those having to self-quarantine in a hotel. There were questions about pets: bringing cats and dogs back home. One wanted to know about transporting his machete. Amid economic meltdown, there were many questions about unemployment and would the evacuated Volunteers be eligible? After all, they were not technically “employees.”
What they were, per a new community-generated acronym: ERPCVs, for Evacuated Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
Pin our hopes: The community offered places to stay and airport rides, financial help and comfort. Sometimes it was the little things, like lost and found—a Botswana pin scooped from an airport floor in Doha. Photo by Carrie Cowan Angell
There were differences in status: Some were initially placed on administrative hold. Ultimately, all were COS’d — a verbification of the acronym for “close of service.” That status unlocked benefits that otherwise would not have been available to Volunteers kept on hold. But it felt like a gut punch to many. And it led to this Washington Post headline: “The Peace Corps isn’t just bringing home 7,300 volunteers because of the coronavirus. It’s firing them.” Not exactly. But there was this: To formally COS, Volunteers needed medical checkups, which had to be done back home; nationally, non-critical medical appointments were on hiatus.
The Facebook group provided updates and advice; it steered members to the latest news and programs from National Peace Corps Association, as well as new policies rolled out by the Peace Corps agency. Group members have provided job help and resume reviews, interview tips and advice for grad school, opportunities for community service to help battle the pandemic here at home. It became a place to connect as many took to the streets to protest against racial injustice. In June it carried news that evacuated Volunteers could now apply for reinstatement or re-enrollment.
Joshua Johnson, who served as a Volunteer in The Gambia 2009–11, started the group with other RPCVs because they realized they didn’t need to wait for someone else to take action — they could help by bringing the community together and centralizing resources. “Leaving Peace Corps after months of preparation was difficult enough,” Johnson says. “I can only imagine what it is like to be so quickly pulled out of site.”
“Responding to an emergency situation by coming together as a community gets to the heart of Peace Corps values, and really is what we have trained for.” —Joshua Johnson
Joshua Johnson and family. Photo courtesty Joshua Johnson
And Johnson says the kindness he has witnessed has been inspiring. “In reality, responding to an emergency situation by coming together as a community gets to the heart of Peace Corps values, and really is what we have trained for. In the face of an uncertain situation, and with limited resources, we are able to use our creativity and resourcefulness to come together to make sure that everyone is taken care of.”
The group has also been a platform for ideas. “What has really given me the most hope is seeing how the evacuating Volunteers have responded to this,” Johnson says. “Yes, there have been many moments of grief or frustration shared, but I also see a lot of hope as Volunteers have found ingenious ways to continue their project work, and continue to connect with their communities.”
Tasha Prados (Peru 2011–13) contributed to this story.
Quick Take: Peace Corps Efforts to Help Evacuated Volunteers
Volunteer Ana Santos, evacuated from Rwanda
Providing evacuation and readjustment allowances, a wellness stipend, extended health insurance, health and quarantine instructions and resources, information and webinars for federal government job opportunities, job postings for other private sector positions, and graduate school options. Volunteers who were evacuated qualify for Non-Competitive Eligibility (or NCE), which makes it easier from them to join the federal workforce. They qualify for Coverdell Fellowships available for graduate school study. Volunteers who seek to return to their host countries or seek a new assignment will be given expedited consideration over the next year.
Nearly all evacuating Volunteers are finishing Virtual Completion of Service conferences, which provide training to assist Volunteers with their transition back to the United States and allow closure of activities in their countries of service. Courses through LearningSpace, the agency’s internal online learning management system, are already online, with more in the works to help returning Volunteers: prepare for employment; maintain health and well-being; understand COVID-19; and learn the future process for returning to service once circumstances allow.
Federal agency webinars: Thirty and counting to introduce the work of their agencies, especially as it relates to COVID-19 response. Many more have asked to host a webinar and/or present for a second and third time. Hundreds of evacuated Volunteers have participated in each of these events. The Office of Personnel Management has hosted eight sessions covering themes related to working in the federal government, showcasing opportunities available across the country, discussing how to prepare a successful federal resume and navigate USAJobs for their job search. Hundreds of evacuees have benefited. Bulletins that provide answers to pressing concerns and questions and direct Volunteers to an increasing number of resources available from the Peace Corps and other partners and sources, such as the National Peace Corps Association, RPCV Support Groups, Rotary International, universities offering tuition discounts, and hoteliers offering lodging discounts. New info posted daily.
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A perspective from Kenya. July 18, 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future. see more
A host country perspective from Kenya. Remarks from the July 18, 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future.
By Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said
On July 18, 2020, National Peace Corps Association hosted Peace Corps Connect to the Future, a global ideas summit. NPCA invited three winners of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award to share their perspectives. Here are remarks delivered by Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said — volunteer, philanthropist, and humanitarian engaged in a wide range of medical service and human rights activities on the local, national, and international levels.
Below is an edited version of his remarks.
Hi everybody, I’m happy to be given this chance to share with you some experiences. I’ll talk about three episodes regarding the Peace Corps. Peace Corps came at the correct time when many countries just gained their independence; the young people who came as Volunteers were disciplined and they really interacted with the community.
People in Kenya knew very little about the United States. With the coming of the Peace Corps Volunteers, who worked mainly in rural areas, people came to know more. And that was during during the Cold War. Discussions took place, and people felt at home with the Volunteers — and the Volunteers themselves felt at home. Thus that aim of the Peace Corps was achieved immediately.
The majority of the Volunteers were teachers, and I'm happy to say that most of the people who went through those schools — special high schools — and because of the Peace Corps, they did well in school and they have really served the community. That's the main aim of the Peace Corps: to empower the people.
Watch: Remarks by Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said from July 18
As the years went on, especially in other fields, what Peace Corps Volunteers did was marvelous. In technical terms, whether in agriculture or in otherwise empowering people, they did a good job. The policy of the American government was seen on the ground; to see and talk to people and exchange ideas is when you learn more about the country. And it came as a cultural exchange: We learned technical fields, and we learned more about American culture and American people.
After the Cold War came another era — the era of terrorism, which really affected the work done by Volunteers in several countries. In some countries, the Volunteers couldn't go too deep in some areas. And as things change, especially in Kenya, they had to be pulled out; that was very sad. That also interfered with the work of the Peace Corps Volunteers.
And now there is a reckoning because of this pandemic. I think this a big a big blow to the Peace Corps itself — especially in Kenya, because we were just planning to bring in new Peace Corps Volunteers. We were ready to receive them, after they were pulled out about seven years ago. They were coming back. And unfortunately, all of a sudden this pandemic came.
Now is a very difficult time, especially for the work of the Peace Corps — because the Peace Corps Volunteers work with communities and interact with communities. With this pandemic, we don't know how long it will take. So unfortunately, that interaction is no longer there. Because when people are living together and working together, they learn from each other — and they learn each other's culture, even how to prepare traditional dishes. We shall miss all that.
How can the Peace Corps change and work from outside the country they're supposed to be in? How can the Volunteers work? It's a big challenge. And I think this we have to look at very critically. I don't see Volunteers coming back to the countries in the near future. So I think the best thing is to plan and see how we can interact. What we are doing now through Zoom most these days — people have learned to communicate. People are working from home; is it possible to give some technical advice from home? That's one thing we should look at.
I hope things which would have changed a long time ago should change now, and people should be respected.
How can we revive or continue with the work that Peace Corps Volunteers were doing? They have left, and I'm sure that local people that are trying to contact them to do some work; it's a continuous train which goes on.
How can we survive during this pandemic? We need to look at ourselves and bring our heads together and see how the work can be done. We have seen it at the national conference taking place. And is it possible, at least to some extent, to carry on with the work we are doing in the stations we were through Zoom?
The other issue is the American situation. Just recently people were really shocked when the [government] said that international students who are there had to come back. I'm very happy that decision was revised. Such decisions sometimes, unfortunately, affect ordinary people who have children there and who are starting their own family; they hope that they will get the education they need in America and then come back. So if all of a sudden they said that "No, because of this pandemic, you have to go back," it becomes difficult.
But also, if I can mention what has happened recently in the States — especially the brutality which is going on: That really affected so many people all over the world. I'm glad that things are being worked out, and I hope things which would have changed a long time ago should change now, and people should be respected.
People are very sensitive, especially in terms of human rights; people are saying that especially that America, this democracy, is usually the first to talk about and harass other countries when there is abuse of human rights. And here people are looking at especially the security guys and themselves doing such things. As human beings, we should all learn to live with each other and respect each other — and work together.
Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya is a volunteer, philanthropist, and humanitarian engaged in a wide range of medical service and human rights activities on the local, national, and international levels. He is the 2013 recipient of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award.
Sixty Years of Peace Corps see more
Letters, emails, LinkedIn and Instagram comments, Facebook posts, tweets, and other missives: Readers respond to the stories in words and images in the Spring 2021 edition of WorldView. We’re happy to continue the conversation here and on all those nifty social media platforms. One way to write us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sixty Years of Peace Corps
Thanks for another great issue! Glad you included “If I had three minutes to talk to President Biden about the Peace Corps…,” which we heard in March, and then lots of other good stories such as “Once More, with Feeling” in Moldova and “Triage, Respite, and Isolation” at the Lord Baltimore Hotel. Glad, too, to be able to read on paper! Hoping for some in-person meetings in D.C. in September.
While we’re not able to gather for Peace Corps Connect in person in September, some affiliate groups representing individual countries of service are holding their own reunions. And a wreath-laying ceremony will take place in person at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. More info, including a schedule for the conference and registration: bit.ly/peace-corps-connect-2021 —Ed.
Much thanks to NPCA for drawing our attention to the current effort to reauthorize the Peace Corps Act (H.R. 1456). This important legislation has been introduced by John Garamendi (D-CA; Ethiopia 1966–68) and co-sponsored by Garret Graves (R-LA). It has been decades since the Peace Corps’ organic legislation was last comprehensively reviewed and updated in 1999. The world has changed a lot since then, and the Peace Corps Act needs to be updated to keep up with those changes.
Between the two of us (father and daughter) we have extensive Peace Corps experience, including two tours as Volunteers, five years of work in Peace Corps Recruitment, Peace Corps Employee Union work, and currently one of us is a Peace Corps Response candidate. Our work with the Peace Corps has given us insight into the deficiencies of the current law governing the Peace Corps. We desperately need an airing of any systemic problems so that reasonable solutions can be implemented. This effort will make the program more efficient and effective in the 21st century.
So … consider the baton passed! NPCA has alerted the Peace Corps community to the reauthorization effort. It is now incumbent upon us to contact our congressional representatives and encourage its passage. If you are reading this letter, stop now and go do it! What are you waiting for?
I served in Ghana in the mid-’70s and have followed President Biden in his COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan. He was asked if he would consider sending the vaccine overseas once we got the virus under control and we accumulated a surplus. The president’s response was quick in the affirmative, since we are aware that it is a global pandemic. I would like to suggest that the priority list for countries receiving our surplus should be countries that currently host Peace Corps Volunteers. It would be beneficial to both the host countries and the Volunteers.
As a side note, my daughter was also a Volunteer. She served in Botswana 2008–10.
I’d say: 1) We know you support Peace Corps; thank you. 2) Please double the budget. 3) Lead retooling, re-entry, and re-engagement into host nations with public health efforts at the forefront.
What is the cost of public benefit/value and global net welfare gain via supranational peace in the long run? That’s just one reason I’m proud not only to have served in the Peace Corps, but to be an American. Many nations make allies to go to war. The U.S. decidedly makes allies to not go to war, while also promoting friendship across borders.
If I had three minutes I would tell the president to definitely not expand the Peace Corps. Typical of government and organizations: If it’s working, let’s just expand it until it’s dysfunctional. Rather, put more young and old people to work in this country and keep the international portion selective and efficient.
Peace Corps Connect to the Future
I read through your whole Winter 2021 publication and do want to tell you how much I appreciated it. I don’t necessarily feel comfortable with all of your proposals for the future of Peace Corps; there is definitely a generation gap.
I am now 95 years old (and was obviously an “older” Volunteer), yet I still feel very much in tune with the concept and the actual organization. I served in the Dominican Republic 1987–89 in rural development, and before the electronic age. Yet, as I read the stories of the various recent Volunteers, their experiences don’t seem so different from mine.
Thank you for keeping us returned Volunteers informed.
Dominican Republic 1987–89
Thank you for amplifying the discussion of diversity in the Peace Corps community. That spurred our minimally-diverse TCP Global team to look beyond the ranks of RPCVs. Not too surprising, adding two Kenyan Americans and one representative each from Uganda, Nigeria, Niger, and Nepal helps all of us to better address the different challenges and opportunities in different regions. Their presence on the team serves as a welcome sign for site administrators to offer their own suggestions for improving service, much as Colombia Project administrators helped to perfect our model over the first seven years in Colombia. We are still a work in progress and are fortunate to have natives of five countries we serve helping us chart the course ahead.
Co-Executive Director, TCP Global
Colombia 1968–70, Slovak Republic 1997–99
Corrections: Politics, and that would be March 2021
Our Spring 2021 roundup of returned Volunteers serving in state government (page 47 in print) should have included one who recently made the move from the hospital to the capitol in Wisconsin: Sara Rodriguez was elected to the state legislature in 2020. She served with the Peace Corps in Samoa 1997–99, as a health education Volunteer focused on HIV/AIDS and reproductive health. She has worked as a nurse, in epidemiology with the CDC, and as a healthcare executive.
In print, “What Lies Ahead for the Peace Corps” (page 15) contained a slip of the year in the intro: Carol Spahn’s remarks were given at the Shriver Leadership Summit in March 2021, not 2020.
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Learning and teaching through the Advancing Health Professionals program see more
Peace Corps Volunteer in Cambodia (2017–19) | Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Malawi (2019–20)
As told to Emi Krishnamurthy
Photo: Baobab tree — used for food and medicine. Photo by Dallas Smith
While earning my Doctor of Pharmacy in the States, I spent a month in India learning about what’s known as traditional and complementary medicine. Then, in Cambodia, I saw it utilized to heal people, using local culture and expertise. I brought that perspective into Malawi, but I took it one step further: I know it works, but why? How do we make it better? What are the side effects? How do we make it more clinically relevant so that we can employ it in a better way?
In Malawi I learned from experts knowledge that has been passed along generations. My advice for Response Volunteers is to be a humble and open learner.
In Malawi I learned from experts knowledge that has been passed along generations. My advice for Response Volunteers is to be a humble and open learner. With that in mind, the Advancing Health Professionals program provides a venue for pharmacists to pass along their knowledge, skills, resources, and connections to countries that are developing the pharmacy profession — especially the clinical aspect.
Students in a medicinal garden in Malawi. Photo by Dallas Smith
At the beginning of the pandemic, the University of Malawi College of Medicine had a big hand-sanitizer production project to prepare for when COVID might hit Malawi. When we got evacuated, the College of Medicine transitioned to online learning, and I’ve been teaching virtually since then.
This was hard for a lot of health professionals; it felt like we were abandoning our colleagues. That feeling drove me to serve where I could; June to December 2020, we were in Arlington, Virginia, and I started volunteering with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps at COVID-19 testing sites. When the vaccine came out, I helped with rollout as a senior point of dispensing (POD) director.
The coolest part was working with such a diverse crew of community members to tackle both the testing and the vaccination with limited resources. We set up sites at gymnasiums, community centers, park benches, and homeless shelters. We had retired schoolteachers, retired nurses; we had actors, pharmacists, physicians, a dental hygienist. We were all working our butts off to end the pandemic. I can’t tell you how many amazing 65-year-old retired nurses volunteered their time to vaccinate for 12 hours a day, even when they were at risk. They wanted to end this pandemic. They weren’t going to let the possibility of contracting this disease stop them from their duty to health equity.
I also got to work with half a dozen other RPCVs. We used some of the languages we picked up from our Peace Corps services. Now I am working in Atlanta with the Epidemic Intelligence Service, which is a CDC disease detective program.
This is part of a series of stories from Crisis Corps and Peace Corps Response Volunteers and staff who have served in the past 25 years.
She brought literacy expertise to work in Belize. And has volunteered with FEMA to combat COVID-19. see more
Peace Corps Response
Volunteer in Belize (2018–20) | Peace Corps Response Volunteer with FEMA in Oregon, United States (2021)
As told to Sarah Steindl
Photo: Teacher and student at work in Belize. Photo courtesy Judith Jones
My Peace Corps journey was a little bit different. I originally applied to be a two-year Volunteer in Jamaica, and I got rejected for medical reasons. I appealed, and I lost that decision. I was devastated because this was something that I really wanted to do in my retirement. Then out of the blue, a month later, a friend who works for USAID wrote me about the literacy support specialist position in Belize for Peace Corps Response: “I think you’d like this.” I looked at it and thought, My gosh, this was written for me! I’ve taught children and adults for 30 years, worked as an ESL teacher and literacy coach. I applied at the beginning of February 2019. They told me toward the end of April that I was going, with five weeks to get ready.
In Belize we worked with the Ministry of Education. We worked with second-grade teachers to help develop their skills in teaching reading. Belize is a place where they are still using very traditional teaching methods. We had to meet them where they were at. We gave them workshops and courses, and we went on-site in classrooms to help implement strategies: working with a small group of students, designing activities to improve reading levels.
We found kids in second grade who couldn’t spell their name, didn’t know the complete alphabet, the sounds that letters make, or how to spell simple words. By second grade, most children should know these things. But classrooms don’t have books. I wanted to get more books in the classroom, but it was important that the teachers take on those projects. My country director, Tracey Hébert-Seck, was a big proponent of not doing things for them, but doing things with them, and teaching them to do it on their own.
Literacy at the forefront — and Judith Jones in the background, observing a teacher work with her intervention group of students in Belize. Photo courtesy Judith Jones
I think there need to be more 50-plus Volunteers and staff. There need to be more Black and brown Volunteers and staff, more variety in sexuality and gender. Peace Corps needs to reflect America. I don’t see that in recruiting. I don’t see that in staff. It’s hard to get into Peace Corps if you’re 50-plus or 60-plus. To go through the craziness of the medical clearance process, you have to spend so much money — so how are you going to get Volunteers from a lower socioeconomic area? It really needs to be made easier and more diverse. We should be able to participate.
With Response, I got to do something closer to the work that I love doing. I want to continue to put literacy at the forefront of education. Literacy will improve countries, economies, and social situations.
With Response, I got to do something closer to the work that I love doing. I want to continue to put literacy at the forefront of education. Literacy will improve countries, economies, and social situations.
I enjoy doing this job I’m in right now, supporting the vaccination effort with FEMA. The Oregon Health Authority has been a fantastic counterpart. And it’s interesting working with all these young people. But that’s very different from what Peace Corps Response usually is; typically Volunteers are more mature and used to working. We learned from each other. It was invaluable.
This is part of a series of stories from Crisis Corps and Peace Corps Response Volunteers and staff who have served in the past 25 years.
Peace Corps Takes Steps to Return to Service Overseas see more
The Peace Corps announced on June 30 that it was a step closer to returning Volunteers to overseas service — starting with Belize.
By NPCA Staff
Photography by Emily Gale. Pictured here: BRO club members, hijinks, and a freshly painted world map in 2019
The Peace Corps announced on June 30 that it was a step closer to returning Volunteers to overseas service — starting with Belize. With a set of health, safety, and security criteria met for the post, Volunteers could arrive as early as this fall. At the request of the government of Belize, Volunteers will engage in literacy work, helping schools recover following disruptions to the education system during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Following 15 months of global isolation, tireless work by our staff around the world, and incredible patience from our applicants and host country partners, the Peace Corps is moving forward in the process of returning to our overseas posts,” said Acting Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn. “The Peace Corps is advancing with an abundance of caution, flexibility, and pragmatism, but also with so much hope about all the important work that is ahead of us.”
As waves of the pandemic have swept the U.S. and the world, Peace Corps preparations have included ensuring that every post meet a comprehensive list of internal and external factors — including updating emergency action plans, ensuring availability of reliable transportation routes in and out of the country, confirming the local medical care capacity, and identifying medical evacuation locations. Also crucial: ensuring that the timing of return is safe, respectful of culture and on-the-ground conditions, supportive of a host country’s urgent needs, and compliant with local laws, regulations, and protocols. The Peace Corps anticipates additional country-specific invitations in the upcoming months.
Mapping Their World: GLOW and BRO clubs in Belize finished this project in 2019, working with Peace Corps Volunteer Emily Gale. By the end of 2021, the country hopes to see Volunteers return. Photo by Emily Gale
With a coast on the Caribbean and located between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is just under 8,800 square miles in size — about the same size as Massachusetts — and has a population of about 405,000. Of the 23 countries in North and South America, Belize was the last to report a case of COVID-19. Cases peaked there in December 2020. As we go to press, case incidence is about 13 percent of the maximum; about 26 percent of the population has been vaccinated. There have been some 14,700 infections and 344 deaths from the virus. When arriving, travelers must present a negative COVID-19 test regardless of vaccination status.
“We are grateful that our government’s consistent efforts to mitigate COVID-19 in Belize have been able to bear fruit in this way, and that the Peace Corps Volunteers will soon be able to return,” said Dian Maheia, who leads Belize’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, and Technology. “We are more excited to know that we will be the first country across the world to receive Volunteers again.”
Prior to the global evacuation of Volunteers in March 2020, Peace Corps Belize was one of the longest continuously running Peace Corps programs in the region. Since 1962, more than 2,000 Volunteers and Peace Corps Response Volunteers have served in communities, with a recent focus on education and rural and family health.
The second time in history that Peace Corps Volunteers have been deployed in the United States. see more
Beginnings. Good sense. And the second time in history that Peace Corps Volunteers have been deployed in the United States.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Photo from 1994: A Rwandan refugee camp in eastern Zaire. Photo courtesy CDC
Here’s an instructive but heart-wrenching place to start, if we want to tell the big story at the center of this edition of WorldView. It’s one of crisis and response: April 1994. A plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi is shot down over Kigali. The assassination ignites events that lead to horrific genocide in Rwanda. Over 100 days, 800,000 people are killed. More than 2 million flee to neighboring countries as refugees; another 1.5 million are internally displaced.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer John Berry and his then-wife, Carol, were in Rwanda at the time. Carol was working with a human rights group; John was directing training efforts for micro-enterprise development. They were evacuated as the nightmare began to unfold.
Back in California, John and Carol were watching news reports on the genocide when they saw a local reporter interview another returned Volunteer, Steven Smith, who was in Zaire — where many Rwandan refugees had fled. Smith was recruiting returned Volunteers to help Rwanda. John called him. And Smith reached out to National Peace Corps Association President Chic Dambach. As WorldView editor emeritus David Arnold wrote in this magazine, “They set in motion grassroots initiatives that became known as the RPCV Rwanda Project.” They also found funding to build NPCA’s Emergency Response Network — “names, contacts, and résumés of hundreds of RPCVs willing to turn their cross-cultural experiences, language, and skill sets to the Rwanda crisis.”
And they brought together returned Volunteers to work with refugees on the ground.
NOT LONG AFTER, in 1995, Mark Gearan was sworn in as Peace Corps director. He took a page from the Emergency Response Network playbook and launched Crisis Corps, a new Peace Corps program to harness the skills and cross-cultural experience and care returned Volunteers might bring to crisis situations. The program was formally inaugurated in June 1996 at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. Among those present for the occasion: Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, and his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, as well as longtime Peace Corps champion Senator Harris Wofford.
“The real gift of the Peace Corps is the gift of the human heart, pulsing with the spirit of civic responsibility that is the core of America’s character. It is forever an antidote to cynicism, a living challenge to intolerance, an enduring promise that the future can be better and that people can live richer lives if we have the faith and strength and compassion and good sense to work together.”
At that ceremony, President Bill Clinton observed a truth we know well. “The dedicated service of Peace Corps Volunteers does not end when their two-year tour is over,” he said. “So let us always remember that the truest measure of the Peace Corps’ greatness has been more than its impact on development. The real gift of the Peace Corps is the gift of the human heart, pulsing with the spirit of civic responsibility that is the core of America’s character. It is forever an antidote to cynicism, a living challenge to intolerance, an enduring promise that the future can be better and that people can live richer lives if we have the faith and strength and compassion and good sense to work together.”
AND WHAT OF THAT — compassion and good sense and working together? In 2021, for the second time in history, Peace Corps Response Volunteers have been deployed domestically. The first time was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When Response Volunteers were recruited this past spring, there were more people offering to serve than there were slots available. It seemed that the pandemic was winding down. Just a few months back — but a long time ago. More recently, when one group of Response Volunteers was working with vaccination outreach efforts in underserved communities in Oregon, the sense of this is about over couldn’t have been further from reality. As a reporter for NBC News who had spent time with the Volunteers observed, ICUs in the state were virtually at capacity.
Peace Corps Response Volunteer Judith Jones talks with NBC News reporter Maura Barrett. Jones was evacuated from Belize in March 2020 and in 2021 has been part of the second domestic deployment of Peace Corps Volunteers.
So, in service around the country amid this pandemic, we find one answer to another question we ask in this edition: What does it mean to serve now? A question that bears asking as Peace Corps Response marks its 25-year anniversary and the Peace Corps celebrates 60 years. And a question that, for this edition, we put to Mark Gearan in his recent capacity as one of the leaders for the congressionally mandated National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Over several years, that bipartisan commission endeavored, for the first time in the nation’s history, to gain a comprehensive view of what it means to serve — and what the needs and as of yet untapped opportunities are. They sought to answer, in concrete terms: How can we get to 1 million Americans serving every year?
Sixty years ago, the Peace Corps took wing fueled by JFK’s exhortation “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” In helping to define and inspire service for a new generation, and in reaching a scale this country has never seen, the ideas and the ideals that have shaped Peace Corps have something to bring to the table. Read on.
DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE: David Arnold’s 2013 story on Rwanda and the NPCA Emergency Response Network.
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.
She was serving as a health advisor in Malawi. Evacuated to the U.S., she has helped fight COVID-19. see more
Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi (2018–20) | Peace Corps Response Volunteer with FEMA in United States (2021)
As told to Emi Krishnamurthy
Photo: Vishakha Wavde has worked in community outreach efforts with FEMA in the U.S. Photo by Eli Wittum
I have been in the health sector my whole life. I’ve been a physical therapist in Chicago since emigrating to the U.S. from India 27 years ago. In 2020, after being evacuated from Malawi, where I served as a community health advisor, I continued as a physical therapist until I found the opportunity to work with FEMA and the Peace Corps for the COVID vaccination rollout.
Before my service, I didn’t know where Malawi was on a map. My first friend in Malawi was Jean Kaponda. When I arrived, she took me under her wing — she showed me the marketplace and schools, introduced me to people. We started going to church together and I joined the choir, where every Sunday we would sing in the local language, Chichewa. The pastor lived next door to me; his kids and I would sit outside to play Scrabble. I love to cook. I would make fudge, cookies, cornbread, zucchini bread, mango bread, pumpkin bread, and I’d share those with people in the village. These little things made me feel like I was part of the community.
Story on a maize sack: In Malawi, Vishakha Wavde teaches malaria prevention to kids. Photo courtesy Vishakha Wavde
In Malawi I set up bed nets and built hand-washing stations for local households. Those projects brought me close to a lot of community members — I was literally stepping in and out of every house in the village. I also did a lot of Grassroot Soccer, which helped educate high school kids about HIV causes and prevention through soccer drills. I worked with a group of women through the SOLID program, which helps teach how to run a business and be financially independent. As I was about to start an agriculture, environment, and health initiative, COVID hit and I was called back.
To be honest, I really didn’t think COVID was that serious; we were untouched by what was happening. When on March 14 the news arrived that we needed to pack our bags and head to the capital, I was under the impression that I would be there a few days and then things would get better. I packed one suitcase, left the rest of my belongings. When our flight took off from Malawi, a part of me just broke away. I didn’t get to say goodbye — to my neighbors, the woman who would draw water for me, the pastor who lived next door, the grandmother whom I always chatted with, even my counterparts. It was so abrupt. I was numb for a long time.
Even though I still love being a physical therapist, I never believed that I could apply my skills toward some other path outside of my educational background. This journey has brought me to consider what more I can do.
We’ve gotten back into our lives here, but it was a hard breakup. So when I saw a position to help with vaccination rollout, I didn’t hesitate. In Virginia, where our team is working now, we are trying to get the word out about the vaccination clinics we have set up in grocery stores, churches, community halls, and fire departments. The program is a collaboration between FEMA and the Peace Corps, which has thus far been very successful. FEMA’s background is disaster-geared, so they know how to work with the systems and authorities in an area. The Peace Corps knows how to engage in a community and reach out to people, share stories, and connect. The continents, countries, culture, and languages differed, but the biggest thing was that I was serving humankind.
At the start of my service, I had been in physical therapy for 25 years. One of my biggest lessons from the Peace Corps is that I am capable of doing much more than I think. Even though I still love being a physical therapist, I never believed that I could apply my skills toward some other path outside of my educational background. This journey has brought me to consider what more I can do.
Vishakha Wavde is featured on the cover of the Summer 2021 edition of WorldView. This is part of a series of stories from Crisis Corps and Peace Corps Response Volunteers and staff who have served in the past 25 years.
A time to honor the past — and commit to a different future see more
A time to honor the past — and commit to a different future
By Glenn Blumhorst
Illustration by Richard Borge
HERE’S A FAMILIAR CELEBRATORY REFRAIN: On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, establishing the Peace Corps with the mission of building world peace and friendship. In honor of that beginning, every spring is a time for us to recognize the ways that the Peace Corps has made an impact — in individual lives and in communities around the globe.
But this year is different. And an unprecedented time in so many ways.
One year ago, March brought the global evacuation of Volunteers from communities where they were serving. Communities were bereft, Volunteers heartbroken. Thousands in the Peace Corps community came together in an unparalleled response, assisting evacuated Volunteers in ways big and small. Some of those evacuees were able to help communities across the United States reeling from the pandemic; they began serving as contact tracers, working with food banks, making masks, or later deploying as part of NPCA’s Emergency Response Network in Washington State — and so much more. This May, many begin serving domestically as Peace Corps Response Volunteers, assisting at FEMA community vaccination centers.
Here at National Peace Corps Association, we rapidly launched the Global Reentry Program one year ago — at the outset to focus on the immediate needs of evacuated Volunteers. The program has expanded to provide broader, more robust support for returned Volunteers — such as counseling, mentorship, career advice, and more.
Last summer we convened a series of town halls and a Global Ideas Summit to ask deep and searching questions about the relevance of Peace Corps in a world profoundly altered by COVID-19—and the systemic inequities the pandemic underscored. Drawing on decades of experience and commitment, members of the community offered concrete ways we might reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world.
The report distilled from those conversations, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” has provided a road map. Recently it helped shape the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in decades: the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021, introduced by Rep. John Garamendi to the House of Representatives on March 1. Garamendi served as a Volunteer in Ethiopia. This legislation calls for important reforms, including addressing better healthcare and providing protection for whistleblowers in the Peace Corps. And it calls for the increase in funding that will be necessary for the Peace Corps to help lead the way in reengaging with a world profoundly changed by COVID-19.
This legislation is one of the concrete ways that the report is yielding results. Several working groups focused on implementing the report—through Congress, the Peace Corps community, affiliate groups, and more — continue their efforts. And in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine, Peace Corps Acting Director Carol Spahn speaks of how the report is already informing work at the agency.
A time of reckoning
In more ways than one, last year also began a time of reckoning for our nation. And it’s far from over. COVID-19 continues to exact a terrible price, even as vaccines are deployed in the United States. Globally, more than 3 million have died. We continue to witness the crushing toll of systemic racism: in terms of healthcare and economic opportunity, and with people of color being victims of hate crimes, as well as far too often violence at the hands of police. The murder of George Floyd last May was a catalyst for protests across the country and the world. Let us hope that the conviction of his murderer is a step forward on the journey toward justice.
“Empower the people,” Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya reminded us last summer. “That’s the main aim of the Peace Corps.”
“Empower the people,” Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya reminded us last summer. “That’s the main aim of the Peace Corps.”
Here at home, as part of our commitment to service, we have asked members of the Peace Corps community to take a stand to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. We renew those calls for reform.
We know that equity and justice are works in progress. That intentionality matters. That service continues in the communities we call home. And as we look toward the future, we know that it is a sense of solidarity, not charity, that must be the compass by which we steer the Peace Corps.
In this anniversary year, thank you to all who have served. Thank you to the people and communities around the world who have undertaken this work together. And thank you for being willing to show the commitment that we all must in the ongoing work of building peace and friendship. It’s work that’s far from finished.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He welcomes your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
This story appears in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine. Sign up for a print subscription by joining National Peace Corps Association. You can also download the WorldView App for free here: worldviewmagazine.org
Evacuation, some Peace Corps history, and #apush4peace see more
Evacuation, some Peace Corps history, and #apush4peace
When Coronavirus Unmapped the Peace Corps' Journey
Jeffrey Aubuchon (92252 Press)
Reviewed by Jake Arce and Steven Boyd Saum
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the unprecedented global evacuation of Peace Corps Volunteers. Jeffrey Aubuchon brings together stories of some evacuees chronicled in WorldView: Chelsea Bajek, who was working with a women’s group in Vanuatu; Jim Damico, evacuated from teaching in Nepal; Benjamin Rietmann, yanked from his work with farmers and young entrepreneurs in Dominican Republic; and Stacie Scott, who left behind the community she was serving as a health volunteer in Mozambique.
Aubuchon follows in greater depth two Southern California high school sweethearts, Jacqueline Moore-DesLauriers and Dylan Thompson, who served together in Morocco. In Sefrou (pop. 80,000), on the outskirts of Fez, they taught English classes and hosted a STEMpowerment workshop for girls at the local dar chabab (youth center). They established a girls’ volleyball team that played its first game on March 5. Ten days later, Peace Corps announced its global evacuation.
“Never in the last 40 years has the Association’s mission been more vital.”
The book also serves up some context for 2020 — when each week seemed like a year unto itself. And National Peace Corps Association gets more than a passing nod — particularly its crucial work advocating for evacuated Volunteers, which helped secure additional benefits for them and $88 million in supplemental funding for Peace Corps. “Never in the last 40 years has the Association’s mission been more vital,” Aubuchon writes. “Indeed, on March 16, 2020, NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst released a statement not only voicing support for all of the EPCVs, but also outlining a national plan to coordinate support for these evacuees among the Peace Corps, the NPCA, and the RPCV community itself.”
Aubuchon served as a Volunteer in Morocco 2007–09. “I walked my own Peace Corps journey in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Casablanca bombings of 2003,” he writes. He applied for and received grant funding to help build four libraries. In fall 2019, he was teaching a course in Advanced Placement U.S. History at a high school in central Massachusetts. A lesson in Cold War history led students to do more than merely talk about global problems; they founded a youth venture — and began raising funds to support Peace Corps Volunteers’ projects. Taking the acronym for the class, APUSH, they hasthtagged their effort #apush4peace. They convinced community members to put up $1,000 in seed funding — and then, through fundraising, more than tripled that, “allowing them to help a PCV in Zambia build a hospital clinic ward and help another build a library in Mozambique.”
Paama Custom Arts Festival: Traditional basket weaving on Vanuatu. Chelsea Bajek worked with these women to launch a business project. Photo by Chelsea Bajek
One of those APUSH students, Olivia Wells, takes over the closing chapter of the book. She observes: “Few people know that there are ways to help educate adolescents in Eswatini (Swaziland) about HIV/AIDS, or to help local farmers in Malawi construct an irrigation system to decrease water erosion on their farmland.”
This is a project that’s meant to give back; one dollar from each copy sold goes to Kiva.org to support microfinance projects, and another dollar goes to support National Peace Corps Association.
As for the stories of the Volunteers who were evacuated: Those journeys continue beyond the pages of the book. For example, Jim Damico, a three-time Volunteer, didn’t wait for Peace Corps to return to Nepal. He went back on his own in January 2021 and has been mentoring teachers. Chelsea Bajek, who was serving in Vanuatu, had successfully applied for a Peace Corps Partnership Program grant to purchase equipment and materials for skill-building workshops at the Paama Women’s Handicraft Center. But those funds were cut off when Bajek was evacuated. Thanks to crowdsourcing and NPCA’s Community Fund, in 2021 that project was fully funded and will, Bajek reports, increase opportunities for women’s economic development and empowerment.
The skateboarding project and learning to paddle together. see more
Nobody wanted it to happen this way. Evacuation stories and the unfinished business of Peace Corps Volunteers around the world.
The Philippines | Diane Glover
Home: Valdosta, Georgia
When Diane Glover arrived in the Philippines in July 2018, it was a sort of homecoming — to the country where she was born and left at age 11. She was raised by her older sister in Washington state and Georgia. “So many people invested in my success,” she says. Returning that investment seemed natural; empowering girls is something she cares about deeply — especially survivors of sexual violence.
She was a youth development Volunteer in Tacloban City on the island of Leyte. She worked with dozens of street children. One effort was the “skateboarding project,” which rented out skateboards — but not for money. The goal was to get kids into the community office and help them learn. Every minute they participated in reading, writing, or gardening bought a minute of skateboarding. The work taught Glover patience: “I can’t necessarily say, ‘I transformed six lives today.’ Most of the time our success — we don’t see that until down the road.”
“I can’t necessarily say, ‘I transformed six lives today.’ Most of the time our success — we don’t see that until down the road.”
Investing in their success: Diane Glover, left, with kids in Tacloban City. Photo by Diane Glover
With six months left, she was worried about cutting it close with the terms of a grant. There was another project proposal — and wouldn’t it be good to extend for a third year? Then came the email.
The islands of the Philippines are scattered over hundreds of miles; evacuation was decentralized. Peace Corps staff flew from Manila to Cebu City to ensure that Volunteers consolidating there got home safely. “They just wanted to support their Volunteers till the very end.”
Crisis brought home a new lesson: Stop worrying about grants and project deadlines. “The evacuation has given us a snap of realization: Your relationship is your success—the relationship that you create in your community.” Yet suddenly that was gone.
The Philippines | Rok Locksley
Home: Chicago, Illinois
Volunteer Rok Locksley, left, supported Nibarie Nicolas in his projects focused on marine resources. Photo courtesy Rok Locksley
I met Nibarie Nicolas just before our swearing-in ceremony in Manila. I knew him as Ban2x (Ban-Ban). He’s mid-twenties, full of energy, curiosity, and infectious joy. He had recently been hired as fisheries technician for the Municipal Office of San Jose in the Visayas region. He was responsible for local marine resources, programs, and events. He was passionate about working with local fisherfolk. And he was assigned to be my counterpart.
I served as a Volunteer in Moldova (2005–08) and worked as a recruiter for Peace Corps before my wife, Genevieve, and I went back as Volunteers in Philippines. I supported Ban2x in his projects: developing a guardhouse for our marine sanctuary, programs for fisherfolk, agro-tourism events, and education about marine resources.
Within minutes of us meeting, Ban2x asked if I liked dragonboating. I had a vague familiarity; I’m an avid whitewater kayaker. He had assembled a dragonboat team from the fisherfolk communities; he was drummer and captain. They had never paddled before as a team, but they spent days and nights on the water in canoes they call sakayans, fishing the Tañon Strait. They borrowed a boat for their first race and blew the competition out of the water.
Dragonboating became a major part of my life. After a day in the office working on marine policies or presentations, Ban2x and I headed to practice. We paddled until sunset, then sat on the beach and watched stars reclaim the sky. We shared thoughts and dreams and life lessons. We ended each night with traditional goodbyes in Binisayan: “Kitakits”—which isn’t so much “goodbye” as “Until we see each other again.”
Genevieve became fast friends with Ban2x’s grandmother. We attended birthday parties and fiestas with his family. He took time to walk me through basic introductions, made sure I knew how to dress for various occasions, who to thank. While he was tasked with protection of the park, he had never donned SCUBA gear to see it underwater. So I arranged for him to get his diving certifications. Our first dive we saw lobsters, turtles, sharks, and stunning coral formations. When we surfaced, I saw the wonder in his eyes.
We created plans for coastal resource management and a marine protected area. We had big ideas for 2020. As January ended and news of the virus spread, we intensified our work. February rolled in fast. March, I could see the writing on the wall. I tried to wrap up projects and spoke with Ban2x at length about what needed to happen professionally if Genevieve and I left.
“When we surfaced, I saw the wonder in his eyes.” Photo by Rok Locksley
The first week in March we went on lockdown. I talked with Ban2x about evacuation. He wasn’t worried. Peace Corps evacuated us in 2019 to Manila when a typhoon came close. We returned a week later. When we got the call for consolidation in mid-March, I knew it would be the end of my service. I asked Ban2x to come over.
He arrived in his usual chipper demeanor. We talked on the porch, then I brought him into the house and started pointing out things he could take, what to give to the fisherfolk. After I showed him our bicycles, it registered on his face that we were truly leaving.
I firmly believe that one-to-one relationships built at a grassroots level between people who are fundamentally different is the best pathway to world peace. But I forgot how much it hurts to leave your friends.
When people talk about Peace Corps, they are quick to mention Volunteers and service. Maybe they get around to speaking about the three goals or cultural exchange. Most people forget about the actual mission of the agency: world peace and friendship. I firmly believe that one-to-one relationships built at a grassroots level between people who are fundamentally different is the best pathway to world peace. But I forgot how much it hurts to leave your friends.
Ban2x showed up at our house early the next day. He brought his family car to shuttle us to the seaport. We were on the last boat out. We loaded our bags. He pledged to look after our dog. We hung around the port until the last possible minute. Then I grabbed my dragonboat paddle and turned for one last look at my best friend. “It’s not goodbye,” I said, “just until we see each other again.”
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Address by the Director of the Peace Corps to Peace Corps Connect to the Future see more
Address by the Director of the Peace Corps to the July 2020 global ideas summit: Peace Corps Connect to the Future
By Jody Olsen
On July 18, 2020, National Peace Corps Association hosted Peace Corps Connect to the Future, a global ideas summit. NPCA invited Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen to speak. She was introduced by Glenn Blumhorst, President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. Her remarks come a week after Peace Corps signed a historic agreement for launching a program with Viet Nam in 2022. And they come as the COVID-19 pandemic makes the future for all international work uncertain.
Here is a transcript and video of the introduction and her remarks.
Glenn Blumhorst: I just want to say today, it's just such an honor and a privilege to have Director Olsen with us. I know she has a busy schedule, she has a lot going on. And she's very busy trying to get Volunteers back into the field as soon as possible — as soon as the conditions permit. But she's been really in tune with the community, I would say, attentive to the needs and expectations of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who were evacuated, and she has certainly paid attention to what's going on in our community and in our country.
So it's really a pleasure for me to introduce her today. She's going to share a few words with us. The 20th, director of the Peace Corps, Jody Olsen, who was sworn in in March 2018, started her service with the Peace Corps community as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tunisia in 1966 to 68. She has held multiple leadership positions at the Peace Corps, including headquarters and in the field. She was once the Acting Director of the Peace Corps, the Deputy Director, she has been a chief of staff. She has been a regional director, and she has been a country director in Togo. But let me say: Those are certainly strong credentials for somebody to be the current Peace Corps Director.
I know Jody personally, and I know her very well, and her values and her commitments. And I have to say, there's no better person for the job right now than Jody Olsen. I know that Jody cares deeply about the Peace Corps itself, about Peace Corps Volunteers. And when it came to make the evacuation — or the decision to evacuate the Volunteers, and evacuate the Volunteers, I trusted Jody. I knew that she was doing what she felt was in the best interest of the agency and the Peace Corps Volunteers themselves. They all arrived home safe and sound. And their lives interrupted back home weren't the same, but she handled that situation like no one of us would ever would have wanted to have to had to do. I'm so grateful for having her at the helm of the Peace Corps itself. And I'm very grateful for her two decades of service to the Peace Corps community. So I'm proud and honored and privileged to introduce my colleague and friend, and our esteemed Director of the Peace Corps. Dr. Josephine "Jody" Olsen.
Peace Corps Today
Watch: Jody Olsen’s remarks at Peace Corps Connect to the Future
Jody Olsen: It's a real pleasure to be here, even virtually, thank you all so much. A special thank you to Glenn, a longtime friend, colleague, and a person I admire, as well as everyone at the National Peace Corps Association. Thank you, thank you for all you do. Thank you for all your support — everything that you do.
I also want to note, at this moment, as we just took a moment of silence — that many years ago, I was lucky enough to hear Nelson Mandela speak and even shake his hand. I didn't want to do anything with my hand for quite a while afterward. I was so proud of that moment. But what I remember from that moment was his entire speech was about hope, was about the future, and about what can be accomplished. He never appeared angry. He always appeared strong and hopeful that entire evening. And knowing his background, I carried that, and I have tried to carry that with me ever since.
When I was in college, I happened to be standing on Constitution Avenue, as people moved forward for the March on Washington in August 1963, which included Congressman Lewis — very young at that time. That march, that afternoon, so affected me. And as I've had the pleasure of reading and seeing and hearing and understanding Congressman Lewis's journey, his leadership that he has given this country, I too, feel very sad at this moment and want to make sure that I honor a national icon and national leader for all of us.
I want to begin — oh, first, I do want to thank Katie Long! That was so wonderful, what you sang, and I might just say, Katie, that you probably said better than I'm going to say — a lot of what I'm feeling right at the moment. And I'm hoping that the future and the excitement you had, that reference to the future that you, Glenn, also had, that I can continue to carry that with me as I speak for a few minutes this afternoon. I want to thank NPCA, the board, the staff, and members, for all you do to support the Peace Corps mission and goals, and the incredible support you give Peace Corps and your fellow RPCVs during this very challenging time. You note, as you see, the title is Peace Corps Today. Now there's a reason for this title. I want to say "Peace Corps Future," "Peace Corps Going Forward," because this is about the future. And I'm going to be talking about our plans for returning to our global presence. But I have to refer to them as our global future plans exist today: Saturday, July 18. Why do I give a date for this? Even as we're largely in charge of our process for returning, we're not in charge of the virus. It dictates the time. It dictates the place. And in this global pandemic, our time, its time, its place — changes every day.
Even as we're largely in charge of our process for returning, we're not in charge of the virus. It dictates the time. It dictates the place.
So when you listen, we're hoping this is what we can be over this coming year. But this is as of Saturday, July 18th. To the recently evacuated Returned Volunteers who may be here today, and I know that several of you are, I am here for you. We're here for you. As I have talked with many of you, I know that I can't fully appreciate what you have been going through in having to leave your communities with almost no notice, to a return that you hadn't planned. As I have said before, that fateful day, March 15th, just four and a half months ago — that decision to evacuate all Volunteers was the most difficult decision I have ever made in my life. And I think you can understand in that, I have been part of Peace Corps, Peace Corps has been part of me — for now over 54 years. I'm grateful for your service. And we are grateful to NPCA and all the affiliate groups, and all of our partners in service, who have stepped up and supported and continue to support our Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. The Peace Corps mission is still as relevant today as it was 59 years ago.
The idea of Peace Corps — that idea that Volunteers could serve their country for the cause of peace by living and working in other countries — struck a chord with thousands in the early ’60s. And I confess —myself included — 1964 was when I first heard about Peace Corps. And that enthusiasm continues today. We must work together to ensure that the mission continues into the future, that Volunteers return to the field when safely possible. While the mission remains relevant today, the world has changed. We've already been talking about that. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only highlighted racial and social economic inequities in our countries — in our country — but in countries abroad as well, including all current Peace Corps countries of service. The pandemic has also highlighted global interconnectedness, and with it an increased need for people who can effectively and sensitively navigate cross-cultural difference to build joy and equitable systems and sustainable peace.
This need speaks directly to our continued relevance, and why we must return to our countries of service as soon as it is safe to do so. We take these few months, this few months of pause in our in-field service, as an opportunity to build into our plans, a strong, self-aware, and equitable environment for all staff and Volunteers. Peace Corps' focused goal, which is fully supported by Congress — let me say that again, which is fully supported by Congress — is to return to a full global presence as soon as we possibly can.
Much uncertainty remains here at home and abroad about when and where we will be able to begin reestablishing our operations overseas. Still a question. I repeat: We don't control the disease or its course, but we do control our process to getting overseas. We have some of the brightest and most committed people on our team working hard to plan for reentry to the field that is strong and sustainable, while assuring the wellbeing of Volunteers, staff, and communities. We have developed a comprehensive, two-part process whereby posts work alongside offices at Peace Corps Headquarters to plan for reentry and to prepare to receive Volunteers. Our host country staff are in place in our 61 countries with critical responsibilities towards our return. Our return begins with an external review process, which assesses a wide range of external factors, both domestic and international, including medical, security, administrative, and logistical criteria that must be just right for us to consider a reentry to a specific country.
The pandemic has also highlighted global interconnectedness, and with it an increased need for people who can effectively and sensitively navigate cross-cultural difference to build joy and equitable systems and sustainable peace.
When a country meets these external review criteria, Peace Corps notifies Congress — an important step — that we are initiating a planning for reentry process, and this triggers the internal review. Our internal review is an exhaustive process by which a post prepares for every part of supporting Peace Corps Volunteers, staff, and communities. It involves everything from our host families to our counterparts, to transportation in country, to precautions in the workplace, and to know how to treat a COVID case if it should arise. There are a multitude of checks and balances in this system because we cannot risk anyone.
The Office of Safety and Security, Health Services, Global Operations, and Regions will each thoroughly review and approve each post's individual plans. The Peace Corps is already working in close partnership with our host country governments, local communities, and in-country stakeholders to ensure that the timing of our return is safe and according to each country's local conditions and requirements. And no two countries are similar.
Multiple mitigation measures will assure that we're respectful of our host country's management of the pandemic, including testing for all Volunteers prior to departure — and a 14-day mandatory quarantine once they arrive. All posts will have an emergency response plan, with detailed guidance on responding to any COVID-19 emergencies that arise. Posts are very eager to welcome Volunteers again for service. We hear this every day. And they are fully engaged in this detailed planning process. We will provide reorientation and training on how to operate in a different environment. And there will be more training and preparation for Volunteers and for staff to manage the different challenges of service during COVID-19. Until the pandemic is fully under control, we must operate in a different manner than we have before. And Glenn alluded to that earlier. And the challenges of Volunteer service are going to differ.
This is about assuring our host governments that we are keeping Volunteers and their host families, counterparts, and communities healthy and safe. As you can guess, a lot of uncertainty remains. We face returning to countries where life, public education, health, agriculture, and food processing, distribution, and other systems and people have been impacted by COVID-19. In addition, and most importantly, people all over the world have been observing, and even participating in racial justice and equity protests, particularly those in the United States. We are navigating a world that is in transition. Simultaneously, each of us as individuals — and so much within myself — we are transitioning in our own personal connection to the issues of race, social justice, and inequality. Given this time to focus and to grow, we will return to our posts with renewed eyes, renewed clarity of what to serve means, and renewed expectations of ourselves. The agency is responding. We are responding. We're taking steps. We're building into and making central to our return to operations a workforce that is representative of the diversity of America by uncovering and removing barriers to equal opportunity for multiple groups, including Black invitees, Volunteers, and employees.
We are navigating a world that is in transition. Simultaneously, each of us as individuals — and so much within myself — we are transitioning in our own personal connection to the issues of race, social justice, and inequality.
These efforts to date have included, but are not limited to, intentional holding of very difficult dialogues throughout the agency globally. Dialogues that are continuing almost daily today and will continue going forward. We have projects that reduce work and service barriers for both staff and Volunteers. We're assessing and strengthening diversity recruitment and strengthening diversity pipelines through new and expanded partnerships, many of which are already coming forward and with which were already engaged. A new agency-wide taskforce on diversity and inclusion in the agency will track our internal progress toward equity and diversity as we return to service, enhancing communication about non-competitive eligibility in the federal government as an opportunity to leverage U.S. government efforts to increase diversity across all federal agencies.
Our taskforce on diversity and inclusion has been charged with leveraging the agency data and all recommendations received to date — from the field, from staff, and I know for many of you as RPCVs — so that we craft and subsequently implement concrete and meaningful strategies for change.
As we face this uncertain world, one thing that is not uncertain is our relevance today. The Peace Corps mission of world peace and friendship has never been more important. And Peace Corps has never been more relevant than it is today.
This begins with how we partner with our countries wherever we serve, and how we earn their trust in returning to service safely — safely for our Volunteers, safely for our staff, and safely for the host country residents and our host country counterparts. As we move towards our 60th anniversary, which begins in October, and navigate these uncertainties, we also pause to celebrate all our Volunteers who have contributed over these past 59 years — and to celebrate the new opportunities and service that lie ahead for all of us.
Just this last week, we signed the implementing agreement between the Peace Corps and the Ministry of Education and Training of Viet Nam to officially established the Peace Corps program in English education in Viet Nam. This has been many years in the making, and a joyful moment for so many people. This historic moment, which also coincided with the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. Viet Nam will be our 143rd country to host Peace Corps Volunteers since the agency was founded. And as I was in Viet Nam in December, I appreciated their excitement. And in fact, it was three of the English teachers that I was spending time with when I talked about Volunteers living with host families — three of the teachers raised their hands and said: "Can I be a host mom? Can I be a host mom?" And I thought whichever country wherever we are, wherever we're going to be, "Can I be a host mom?" — that's what friendship is. That's what families are. The next step in partnership and in cross-cultural exchange and capacity building. This next step will benefit the people of both countries for generations and further demonstrate our relevance today. We are a global organization that can have a significant impact on global challenges. Addressing these global challenges starts with maintaining our focus on getting Volunteers back into the field. That is who we are. However, as I've noted, we're not going back to the field the same as we were before. We're going to go back better. For 59 1/2 years, Peace Corps sought assurances from countries where we serve, that our Volunteers will be safe. We must now be prepared to assure the same countries that we have taken the steps necessary for everyone to be safe.
More than ever before, we and our country counterparts, we and our country leaders in each of our countries, are true partners. Returning better also relies on implementing the improvements that I have highlighted with respect to how we recruit, train, and support the Volunteers that represent us. Peace Corps Volunteers should represent the best of all of us in all our diversity — that best represents us as Americans. Going back — and how we go back — is so important, not just to the countries where we serve, but it is important to the entire world. Because the entire world is watching us. They're waiting. They want to see. We're going back.
We will be humble. We will be better. And we will be stronger for what we have been through together.
As we go back, we will be humble. We will be humble. We will be better. And we will be stronger for what we have been through together. The Peace Corps mission of world peace and friendship is as relevant today as it was in 1961, as I said before. We must work together to ensure that the mission continues into the future, that Volunteers returned to the field when safely possible, and that we take this pause and in the field service as an opportunity to build into our plans a stronger and more equitable environment for all staff and Volunteers. So what is our call to action? What is it for all of us — for me, the agency, our countries, our posts, returning Volunteers — what is it? Our continued relevance and ability to carry our mission only holds true as long as we are able to continually grow and challenge ourselves to set the standard for community development.
Challenge our action. Our continued relevance requires that we become increasingly diverse and inclusive. But our work doesn't stop there. A diverse and inclusive community requires nurturing learning, and requires us to face challenges by participation in these very difficult dialogues: that we must evolve our models of service, our training and support, to meet these challenges. Ultimately, the people we serve in more than 61 countries abroad at deserve and expect nothing less. There are no easy answers. Boy, I can say — there are no easy answers! And the process will be neither quick nor simple. But I truly believe that our Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, our incredible staff, and the Peace Corps family — we are all up to this challenge. We are staying strong — and we stay a leader in our mission of world peace and friendship.
I'm here for you all. I'm here for Peace Corps. I'm here for the mission. I am here for going back: better, stronger, more diverse, more equitable. So we can be proud for our next 60 years as we begin our 60th year. Thank you all. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your help. And thank you for being strong. I'll turn it back to Glenn.
Read more: “Our Peace Corps Evacuation Journey,” chronicling what Olsen calls the toughest decision she ever made — to evacuate all Peace Corps Volunteers globally in March 2020. The essay appears in the Summer 2020 edition of WorldView magazine.
Peace Corps Volunteers are Needed at Home Now — and in a new National Service Program: The Week in ReviewA national service program and legislation to benefit Peace Corps — and hurt it. see more
A national service program seems to be an idea whose time has come. Legislation to benefit Peace Corps — and to take back $88 million. Stories of evacuation and service at home. And Twitter shout-outs.
By NPCA Staff
Here are some top stories (and a couple of Tweets) on the Peace Corps community across the United States — and around the world. We include a sampling of opinion pieces and coverage from states and communities that are home to some of the 7,300 evacuated Volunteers — and nearly a quarter million Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Stay up to date throughout the week with our Flipboard stories, subscribe to the National Peace Corps Association newsletter, and follow us on social media.
The Washington Post | Editorial: The U.S. needs an army of workers to reopen. These senators have an idea for getting it.
May 7, 2020
“We need an army of workers to reopen the country,” begins an editorial from the Washington Post last week. “The good news is, a group of senators has an idea for where to find one.” The editorial was republished across the country, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune to the Santa Fe New Mexican to the West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette. The gist: “Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Christopher A. Coons (D-DE), and several colleagues introduced legislation this week to pay for 750,000 national service positions over the next three years… The bill would prioritize Peace Corps Volunteers and Fulbright and other fellowship recipients, as well as, crucially, the many Americans this crisis has left unemployed…Standing up a ready-to-go cadre of Americans who can be deployed anywhere across the country would be instrumental in serving areas where staffing is relatively scarce and sickness is spreading — not only now but also in the many months ahead.”
The New York Times | Columnist David Brooks: “We Need National Service. Now.”
The formative moment for a new generation
May 7, 2020
The column by David Brooks calls for turning this moment of national crisis into a transformative one. “There’s a good bill winding its way through the Senate to do precisely that, led by Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware.” That’s the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act, introduced in April, which calls for expanding national service programs to help meet the need for as many as 300,000 new workers for contact tracing, testing, and other COVID-19 relief efforts. Peace Corps Volunteers get priority. "The Coons bill is an excellent start. But it needs to be bigger and bipartisan.” Brooks advocates for service year fellowships and notes: “There’s no reason this shouldn’t happen. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans support voluntary national service … And as we all know, the benefits of the program accrue not only to those being served but also to those doing the serving. What would it mean to the future social cohesion of this country if a large part of the rising generation had a common experience of shared sacrifice? What would it mean to our future politics if young people from Berkeley spent a year working side by side with young people from Boise, Birmingham and Baton Rouge?”
What we’ll note: For the past 59 years, Peace Corps Volunteers have been answering that very question.
Press Release from Senator Chris Van Hollen | Bicameral Legislation to Significantly Expand National Service in Response to Coronavirus Crisis
With momentum building to utilize national service programs during the pandemic, “UNITE Act” calls for increased AmeriCorps recruitment, expansion of a deployable FEMA force.
May 8, 2020
The latest release from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Sen. Edward Markey, and Rep. Dean Phillips calls for the swift passage of the UNITE Act — and underscores just how critical a role evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers can play during this domestic crisis.
Sen. Van Hollen: “Our national service organizations provide vital assistance to communities across our country and the globe. With a wide array of skills and experience, the volunteers with Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other service organizations are uniquely equipped to help our country battle the coronavirus. We should be doing everything in our power to enlist these men and women – and others who are eager to volunteer – in these efforts.”
Sen. Blumenthal: “We must expand the ability of mission-driven Americans from service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps to serve our country at this time of unprecedented crisis. From public health expertise to extensive experience working in vulnerable communities, these individuals have the invaluable skills to help our country rise to the immense challenges this pandemic has made us face.”
Rep. Phillips: “The Peace Corps represents the very best in American leadership on a global stage, with volunteers serving alongside communities in their fight against sickness, hunger, and economic insecurity. They are ready now to fight for the health of the American people. The United States must have a whole-of-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic that not only employs those who have lost their jobs or who’ve become underemployed, but also delivers relief to understaffed frontline workers.”
Press Release from Senator Jeff Duncan | Duncan introduces WUHAN Rescissions Act
Our take: Legislation would jeopardize funds that provided for health and safety of more than 7,300 evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers amid global pandemic.
May 4, 2020
File this under news you need to know — to take action to stop it. Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC) introduced H.R. 6657, the Working Under Humanity’s Actual Needs (WUHAN) Rescissions Act, which calls for eliminating more than $27 billion from the CARES Act legislation that was overwhelmingly approved by Congress and signed by President Trump in late March. Included in the new legislation is the proposed return of the $88 million appropriated for Peace Corps which covered evacuation and initial support costs for 7,300 volunteers. Read Representative Duncan's press release here. And read more about the co-sponsors — and how you can share your concern over this bill — here.
The Wall Street Journal | Eight Graduates Plan for an Uncertain World
Many of those leaving college this spring have had plans changed by the coronavirus. Members of the Class of 2020 speak about what’s next.
May 9, 2020
In story about young Americans facing uncertainty amid the coronavirus crisis, journalist Kathryn Dill profiles future Peace Corps Volunteer Colton Denton. A first-generation college grad, he hails from Phoenix, is finishing studies at Knox College in Illinois, and has been accepted for a Peace Corps assignment in Ukraine. Training has been postponed from August until September 30 — but may be delayed further. Graduation ceremonies have been postponed, too. “I just hope that it’ll happen before I leave for Peace Corps,” he says, ”assuming that still pulls through.”
The Hill | Opinion: During this historic time, remember to value public service
May 8, 2020
Dr. Joe Heck and Michael M. Crow start with the fact that we’re seeing how critical public service professionals are at a time of crisis. They make the case for a public service corps program across the country. Heck is chairman of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Michael M. Crow is the president of Arizona State University (ASU). They offer ASU’s Public Service Academy as a model — graduating its first cohort last year, including Turner Hubby, a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to Ukraine teaching English as a second language.
Center for Strategic and International Studies | Blog: A Covid-19 Response Corps Can Help Stop the Pandemic
Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers could be readily mobilized.
May 5, 2020
Congresswoman Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) make the case for Peace Corps Volunteers playing a key role in COVID-19 response now. The authors are members of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security. Key takeaway one: "Volunteers have received training in — and many have up to two years’ work experience in — a variety of relevant issue areas, including water and sanitation, hygiene, and maternal and child health. They have experience integrating themselves into local communities, serving as community health workers, peer educators, and teachers. They could be quickly recruited into the CRC and put to work supporting the Covid-19 response across the country."
Key takeaway two: "We know that state and local health authorities are clamoring for such a workforce to combat coronavirus."
KRCR television news | Rep. Huffman and others call for prioritizing national service in future COVID-19 relief
Peace Corps volunteers should be mobilized into domestic programs and projects.
Northern California television station KRCR highlights the efforts of Reps. Jared Huffman, John B. Larson, and Dean Phillips to get House leadership to focus on national service priorities to aid in recovery efforts during the coronavirus pandemic. Included: Peace Corps Volunteers should be mobilized into domestic programs and projects. From the letter: “The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and its volunteers are on the front lines of the recovery effort, providing disaster assistance, educational opportunities, meal support and much more … Investing in the CNCS and reimagining the service of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are investments in the continued rebuilding of the nation.”
WDEL newsradio | A badly needed workforce
Legislation seeks to expand AmeriCorps to provide contact tracing, testing for pandemic response.
May 5, 2020
Coverage of legislation that Sen. Chris Coons introduced in April: “We know that we have a ready pool of returned Peace Corps volunteers, of current year AmeriCorps members, and hundreds of thousands of Americans, who have applied to be AmeriCorps members, but we haven't had the number of funded slots for them.”
Public Service Twitter Shout-outs | House Foreign Affairs Committee
May 9, 2020
To wrap up Public Service Recognition Week (May 3-9), the House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted out thanks to Peace Corps Volunteers in a pair of posts.
“The U.S. is always lucky to have dedicated public servants but especially now, during the #COVID19 pandemic. This #PublicServiceRecognitionWeek we recognize the @StateDept, @USAID, @PeaceCorps and frontline personnel working through this crisis to make the world a better place.”
“And to @PeaceCorps volunteers who have been brought back home during this unprecedented time: thank you for your hard work. Though it was cut short, your commitment to service left an impact on your host community. #PSRW2020”
In the Twitter Zeitgeist | Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban
May 4, 2020
Entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban kicked off a conversation on Twitter May 3 calling for more national involvement in contact tracing and caring for people during the coronavirus pandemic. Sen. Ed Markey joined in to share that he and Sen. Chris Van Hollen had introduced the UNITE Act to “test, trace, and assist the vulnerable.” Cuban’s response: Agree we need to expand @AmeriCorps, @PeaceCorps and other volunteer organizations. But in order for this to work there has to be someone in charge of a coordinated federal Public Health Covid response that can drive a solution driven plan. Patchwork legislation doesn't work.”
Kansas, Tennessee, Washington, D.C., and Nationwide | Stories of evacuation, community service, and recruiting RPCVs for jobs
The Masks Now Coalition is a grassroots movement of over 11,000 nationwide volunteers in every state, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. who are working to help protect frontline workers and healthcare professionals through sewing and donating masks to organizations in need. They’ve teamed up with the group Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Serving at Home — with RPCVs making masks and, in the case of evacuated Volunteer Julie Wang, putting to work her skills as a graphic designer.
Hope and host family: a snapshot from Benin. Photo courtesy Hope Woodard
Two weeks after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Hope Woodard headed for Benin with Peace Corps. She had to evacuate nine months later. “In America, before COVID-19, we had everything at our fingertips,” she says. “I think that this moment, although it has caused a lot of hurt for some people, has allowed people to recalibrate what is important to them.”
“Peace Corps experience shortened due to COVID-19” | Salina Journal, Salina, Kansas
Mohri Exline served as the community and organizational development Volunteer in Albania when she got the fateful call: “I was called on a Thursday night and told to pack because we were being evacuated. The next morning they called and said they would be there at 9 a.m. to get me.”
Takeaway: The departments of Housing and Urban Development and Homeland Security are actively recruiting returned Peace Corps volunteers. Agencies are hosting virtual jobs fairs and recruitment webinars to find new talent.
Stay up to date with the latest news about Peace Corps and COVID-19 global evacuation each day through our Flipboard stories. Here you’ll find a selection of stories from around the world about evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers, efforts to help them here at home, and how they’re helping the United States tackle the COVID-19 pandemic through community service, work as contact tracers, serving on the front lines in medicine, and more.