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COVID-19

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Evacuated Volunteers will put their skills and experience to work at home in a time of crisis see more

    Evacuated Volunteers will put their skills and experience to work at home helping during the pandemic.

    By Glenn Blumhorst


    This week we received very welcome and timely news: Peace Corps Response Volunteers will be deployed to work with FEMA, to assist at vaccination centers across the United States. Not since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have Response Volunteers been deployed domestically.

    From the early days of the pandemic, we’ve seen members of the Peace Corps community step up to help communities across the United States — as contact tracers, working with food banks, making masks, as part of NPCA’s Emergency Response Network in Washington State, and so much more. 

     

    For the past year we’ve supported national legislation that has tried to jump-start formal involvement of returned Volunteers throughout communities here at home. Now it’s happening.

     

    For the past year we’ve supported national legislation that has tried to jump-start formal involvement of returned Volunteers throughout communities here at home. We made the case that Volunteers who were evacuated from around the world in March 2020 can and should be given opportunities to bring their skills and experience to serve at home. That’s exactly what is happening now. As the end of the pandemic is within sight, it’s heartening that Response Volunteers can help at this critical time.

    Those eligible to serve as part of the partnership with FEMA include returned Volunteers evacuated from their overseas posts in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. As the release from the Peace Corps agency notes:

    Volunteers will work at federally supported Community Vaccination Centers (CVCs) across the country. The agency will soon begin recruiting for this special domestic deployment. Assignments will focus on urgent needs as identified by FEMA, and on communities that have been traditionally underserved. Volunteers will be assigned to language support, administrative, logistical, and other work that supports vaccination centers’ operations. It is anticipated that Peace Corps Volunteers will be deployed into the field by mid-May.

    Peace Corps Response, which was originally established as Crisis Corps 25 years ago with a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden, is well positioned to help address the COVID crisis domestically. And in a very timely initiative undertaken two years ago, Peace Corps Response launched the Advancing Health Professionals program, to improve health care education and strengthen health systems on a societal level in resource-limited areas. This is the kind of program that can help lead the way as Volunteers begin to return to the field internationally — to work with communities to address their immediate needs.

    Resilience, commitment, and a sense of working in solidarity with communities defines the Peace Corps experience. We need that more than ever.

     

    Read the full release from Peace Corps here.


    Glenn Blumhorst is President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    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

     

    At sea

    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: worldview@peacecorpsconnect.org


    READ MORE

    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.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    Communities and Volunteers still feel the trauma. An open letter to the Peace Corps community. see more

    Communities and Volunteers feel the trauma of this disruption. But the pandemic has underscored even more profoundly that we need to foster global solidarity and understanding. An open letter to the Peace Corps community.

     

    By Glenn Blumhorst

     

    Nepal farewell: Training to become Volunteers, Rachel Ramsey, left, and Elyse Paré had to evacuate instead. Photo by Eddie De La Fuente 

     

    Around the world in recent days, we have been marking a truly somber anniversary: It was just over a year ago that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. For the Peace Corps community, the burgeoning health crisis led to something unprecedented as well: On March 15, 2020, the decision to evacuate all Peace Corps Volunteers from across the globe. 

    All told, some 7,300 Volunteers were evacuated from more than 60 countries. Sometimes with just hours’ notice, they were told they needed to pack and leave. 

    Communities were bereft; Volunteers were heartbroken, stunned. At the same time, so many rose to the occasion — communities and returned Volunteers alike, reaching out in solidarity in a time of need. Here at National Peace Corps Association, we quickly brought online the Global Reentry Program to assist this surge of Volunteers — who were coming home to a country hit by pandemic and economic turmoil. And soon, too, it was a country wracked by protests against racial injustice.

     

    It’s important to pause and acknowledge the enormity of this disruption.

     

    On this day, it’s important to pause and acknowledge the enormity of this disruption. For those who are part of the Peace Corps community, I would encourage you to reach out to evacuated Volunteers and communities where they were serving. As the 240,000 of us who have served realize, the Peace Corps is profoundly about personal interactions and connections, built up over weeks and months and years. Rupturing those connections because of a crisis is deeply traumatic. 

    Over the past year, many of the evacuated Volunteers have kept in touch with people in the communities where they were serving. At the same time, many evacuated Volunteers have moved on to jobs or graduate school, many with fellowships provided to returned Volunteers. Some are hoping to return to Peace Corps service as soon as possible. And in fact, on their own, a few have returned to the countries where they were serving, though not with the Peace Corps. Scores more have taken part in the first two rounds of virtual volunteering, through a program the Peace Corps launched in the fall, supporting projects in communities where evacuated Volunteers had lived. 

    NPCA’s Global Reentry program continues to work with many evacuated Volunteers, and it is envisioned to become a truly robust resource for the entire Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, providing guidance, advice, and support in tumultuous times. It’s one more way to build connections at a time we so desperately need them.

     

    Amid pandemic: celebration, legislation, and a road map for the future

    At the beginning of March, people and organizations around the world celebrated the establishment of the Peace Corps by an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961. We heard congratulations from U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the Ambassador of Colombia to the United States. We heard from the State of Colorado and the city of Madison, Wisconsin. We heard from governors and senators and representatives across the country. We heard congratulations from Ghana and Germany, Fiji and Korea. The anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps is a time to recognize the powerful impact of service in communities — and how that has been felt across countries and generations. 

    Even more important, it’s a time to look to the future and to ask: How will the Peace Corps work in a changed world? And, as the United States reengages with communities and nations outside its borders, how can the Peace Corps help lead the way?

     

    The report and the team at NPCA have also helped inform the most important piece of Peace Corps legislation in years.

     

    Last year the Peace Corps community came together in a series of town halls and a Global Ideas Summit to reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps. The fruits of those intensive discussions were the community-driven report, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” which provides a roadmap for change. As the Peace Corps agency continues to assemble its new leadership team and tackles strategic planning, that report provides guidance. 

     

    The report and the team at NPCA have also helped inform the most important piece of Peace Corps legislation in years. Two weeks ago, on Monday, March 1, Rep. John Garamendi, who served as a Volunteer in Ethiopia, introduced the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021 in the House of Representatives. National Peace Corps Association worked with Rep. Garamendi’s office to help understand and address key priorities expressed by the Peace Corps community.The legislation calls for important reforms, including issues addressing better healthcare and protection for whistleblowers in the Peace Corps. And it takes seriously an 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. 

     

    Let’s approach the work ahead with a sense of solidarity, not charity — and an awareness of both the privilege we have and the responsibility we share.

     

    Along with the celebratory news stories from around the world, there have been a couple of opinion pieces that have raised the question as to whether the Peace Corps should continue to exist — including one in the Chicago Tribune, to which we responded. In fact, we asked the Peace Corps community that very question last summer, as we convened town halls and our Global Ideas Summit. We took as a touchstone words we heard from people in countries including Nepal, Guatemala, and Kenya: the work of Peace Corps is more important than ever, with a clear sense of solidarity, not charity; with an awareness of the privilege we have and the responsibility we share to our fellow citizens of the world; and the understanding that we can empower communities by working together. That holds true in whatever community we call home.

     

    Unfinished Business: Read the stories from dozens of Volunteers who were evacuated in March 2020 — what they left behind in their communities, and the unfinished business they have — and Peace Corps has — around the world.


    Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association. Write him at president@peacecorpsconnect.org.

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    From the Editor: WorldView winter 2021 see more

    If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that approaching this endeavor with a sense of solidarity and humility and commitment is a matter of life and death.

    By Steven Boyd Saum

    Cover illustration by Ellen Weinstein

     

    This is not the magazine we wanted to publish. How could it be? Instead of marking six decades of Peace Corps in pageantry and scrappy DIY inventiveness, we find ourselves in an existential moment. Begin a familiar litany: devastating pandemic, cratering economy — and within the Peace Corps community, the evacuation of Volunteers from around the world last year, with their hoped-for return to service postponed by the resurgence of the virus. Forget not the crushing burden of racial injustice, or climate instability and the fate of the planet hanging in the balance. And, to kick out the jams in the new year, a mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol: some toting zip ties and beating police and looting offices of the members of Congress under the QAnon banner, some proclaiming civil war, one with Camp Auschwitz emblazoned on his sweatshirt. Weeks one through three of 2021: insurrection, impeachment, and inauguration — with downtown Washington, D.C., fortified like a Green Zone.

    From around the globe: shock, horror, and some schadenfreude, calling out American hypocrisy. But also messages of hope: that this country can pull back from the brink. From my old Peace Corps country of service, Ukraine, where I and a number of returned Volunteers have observed elections over the years, the foreign minister tweeted: “I’m confident American democracy will overcome this challenge. The rule of law & democratic procedures need to be restored as soon as possible. This is important not only for the U.S., but for Ukraine and the entire democratic world as well.” Point taken. This from a country that has had war on its eastern border approaching seven years now — and a country that hosts one of the largest Peace Corps programs in the world.

     

     

    Reengaging with the World

    So, a natural question: Where do we go from here? Reengaging with the World our cover reads. Surely we in these United States have got work to do at home like never before. Indeed. As renowned epidemiologist  Anne Rimoin argues in this edition, that’s all the more reason for working side by side, learning with and from communities around the world. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that approaching this endeavor with a sense of solidarity and humility and commitment is a matter of life and death. A conversation with Rimoin opens a section of the magazine focused on the pandemic: hearing from a nurse on the front lines, a participant in a vaccine trial, and news of returned Volunteers going to work as contact tracers in the first cohort of the National Peace Corps Association Emergency Response Network. Amid these days, both sadness and hope: gifts of COVID-19 survival boxes from the Korea Foundation to the Volunteers who served in South Korea decades ago, as thanks for being there in a time of need. It’s a reminder that the service we undertake, the gestures we make, both large and small, may sustain us and our communities in years to come in ways we can’t imagine.

     

    Now is the time for big changes, for bold ideas, brought to bear with the kind of energy and audacity that launched the Peace Corps 60 years ago — but with a better and fuller and truer sense of community and who we are.

     

    The need to look outward and inward, when it comes to building justice and peace, is not new. An interview with civil rights attorney Elaine Jones makes that clear. In the stories of those honored by the Franklin H. Williams Award in December, we should also ask: How does that building resonate across the years? 

    We explore where we’ve gotten some things right, and how — for instance, eradicating smallpox in Ethiopia and then the world. Or where things went horribly wrong: A diplomat released as a hostage by Iran 40 years ago recounts what happened when those with the power to do something about a violent mob failed to act.

    These are some of the stories, the conversations, the profiles. You’ll notice smack-dab in the center of this magazine something that’s neither; it’s some serious roll-up-your-sleeves stuff: the community-driven report, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future.” These are the big ideas sourced from thousands of members of the Peace Corps community: how we reimagine, reshape, and retool Peace Corps for a changed world. The report embraces this existential moment: Now is the time for big changes, for bold ideas, brought to bear with the kind of energy and audacity that launched the Peace Corps 60 years ago — but with a better and fuller and truer sense of community and who we are. As we’re reengaging with the world, it would be good to lead with what’s best about this country. And to deepen and renew our commitment to living out those ideals at home. 


    Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He was a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96. Write him.

    • Joanne Roll I think Peace Corps has gotten much right. I think the work done by PCVs in eradicating small pox in Ethiopia was very important. But there are times in Peace Corps history where we did not "get... see more I think Peace Corps has gotten much right. I think the work done by PCVs in eradicating small pox in Ethiopia was very important. But there are times in Peace Corps history where we did not "get it right" or perhaps more importantly, did not adequately share what we were learning. Many Volunteers were engaged in small eradication. Jill Vickers produced a documentary titled "Once in Afghanistan" about a group of femaol PCVs who travel from village to village with an escort to vacinnate against small pox. Most "health educators" were either trained to give vaccination or to promote vaccination campaigns. The latter is what I did. The problem I had and many other did too was the lack of sterizalized needles. In so many rural areas as well as poor urban areas, there was no energy source sufficient to do the necessary sterilization. Needles were reused or washed in "weak tea" or swipped with alcohol every third of fourth time after use. My program manager was a social worker. I was frantic wbout this practice. She told me just to tell them to clean the needles after every use. She did not understand that there were no adequate resources. I could find no record in the many years I search Peace Corps records which documented this problem, including all the ones I wrote. If Peace Corps had recorded these probems and shared them with all the proper medical authorities, in=country, with Peace Corps , and with USAID, perhaps the incidence of blood bourn diseases, such as Ebola and HIV/AIDA might have been less.
      2 months ago
    • Joanne Roll {lease excuse the misakes I made in my comment. There was no way I could find to edit.
      2 months ago
  • Jonathan Pearson posted an article
    Health Force, Resilience Force and Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act is presented in both houses. see more

    Health Force, Resilience Force and Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act is presented in both houses. And a Peace Corps Reauthorization Act is in the works.

     

    By Jonathan Pearson

     

    As a new Congress settles in to begin its work, already in January new Peace Corps legislation is starting to emerge. And while new pieces of legislation are being developed, it is also likely that legislative initiatives introduced in the previous (116th) Congress will be reintroduced. 

    At National Peace Corps Association we are gearing up for our 17th annual National Days of Advocacy in Support of the Peace Corps. Some of the legislation shown below will be a key part of our citizen lobbying efforts. Sign up to lead a Days of Advocacy virtual activity in your state/region.

    We will update this story with news on emerging Peace Corps–related legislation.

     

    Senate:

    Health Force, Resilience Force and Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act

    • Lead Sponsor(s): Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and nine others

    • Bill Number: S. 32

    • Copy of Bill/Press Release: Read Senator Gillibrand’s press release here.

    • Bill Summary: Legislation that would invest billions in the nation’s public health jobs and infrastructure and aid the country’s vaccine distribution campaign, and would invest billions in local public health infrastructure to recruit, train, and employ hundreds of thousands of Americans to build public health capacity in underserved communities. Additionally, the Resilience Force would complement the Health Force by bolstering the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workforce in the whole-of-government effort to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.

    • Peace Corps Connection: Unemployed individuals who served in the Peace Corps would be among those prioritized for hiring under this legislation.

    • Quote From Senator Gillibrand: “Enacting a Health Force as part of robust federal plan would enable us to train hundreds of thousands of public health workers, create jobs in struggling communities, and ensure that every community has the resources to reach every American in need of the vaccine.”

     

     

    House of Representatives:

    Health Force, Resilience Force and Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act

    • Lead Sponsor(s): Dean Phillips (D-MN), Jason Crow (D-CO), Lauren Underwood (D-IL), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA)

    • Bill Number: TBD

    • Copy of Bill/Press Release: Read the release from Representative Phillips.

    • Bill Summary: Legislation that would invest billions in the nation’s public health jobs and infrastructure and aid the country’s vaccine distribution campaign, and would invest billions in local public health infrastructure to recruit, train, and employ hundreds of thousands of Americans to build public health capacity in underserved communities. Additionally, the Resilience Force would complement the Health Force by bolstering the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workforce in the whole-of-government effort to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.

    • Peace Corps Connection: Unemployed individuals who served in the Peace Corps would be among those prioritized for hiring under this legislation.

    • Quote from Representative Phillips: “These are unprecedented times that demand thoughtful but expedient action to save lives. Americans deserve a coordinated, fully-funded government response. National service is a time-honored American tradition that is needed as we respond to the coronavirus pandemic.”

     

    Peace Corps Reauthorization Act

    • Lead Sponsor(s): John Garamendi (D-CA)
    • Bill Number: TBD
    • Copy of Bill/Press Release: TBA
    • Bill Summary: RPCV Congressman Garamendi is in the process of updating and reintroducing comprehensive legislation to support and improve the Peace Corps. The legislation is expected to be introduced in the coming weeks.
    • Peace Corps Connection: This bill will focus exclusively on the Peace Corps and Peace Corps community.

     

    Story updated January 26, 2021 at 2 p.m.


    Jonathan Pearson is Director of Advocacy for National Peace Corps Association

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    The COVID-19 pandemic continues to keep Peace Corps volunteer programs paused. see more

    Last fall, Peace Corps announced that, barring unforeseen changes, Volunteers would begin returning to the field as early as January 2021: to Saint Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean, to Cambodia, and to Rwanda. Volunteers would also be given priority regarding the vaccine.

    Then came new waves of the pandemic in regions across the United States and in a number of other countries, with whole nations going into lockdown. And rollout of the vaccine has been frustratingly slow. 

    By December, it was clear: No Volunteers would be heading out in January. As we go to press, a number of programs scheduled for departure in the first half of 2021 have been significantly delayed.  


     

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    COVID-19 puts a pause on Peace Corps Capitol Hill visits see more

    Unprecedented times, yes. But history still offers a few pointers.

    By Jonathan Pearson

     

    Over many years with National Peace Corps Association, I have navigated the corridors and rooms of Capitol Hill to attend meetings, drop off documents, or prepare event logistics. This includes countless visits to the venerable Russell Senate and Cannon House Office Buildings, constructed in the early 1900s. Walking the hallways in quiet moments at the close of a day, I’ll often reflect on the history of these buildings. On the granite staircases, one can literally feel the sunken impressions worn into the stone by millions of people who have climbed this same path over nearly 120 years. It sparks wonder and humility, thinking of all who have been here before — and the titanic issues that brought them, shaping our nation.

    Sixty years ago, Sargent Shriver and Bill Moyers were part of that history. Their task: convince Congress to appropriate funds and formally establish the Peace Corps, created months earlier through an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy.

     

    Journeywork: Sargent Shriver, center, arriving in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar), May 1961. Global meetings led nations to invite the first groups of Volunteers. Legwork in Congress led to the legislation that established the Peace Corps. Photo courtesy Peace Corps

     

    Today, the Peace Corps community must follow in the footsteps of these and many other predecessors. Just as in 1961, Peace Corps’ future is at stake in 2021. As we prepare for this journey, we are fortunate to have history as a guide, including excerpts from the quintessential biography Sarge by Scott Stossel.

    Peace Corps legend has it that between them Moyers and Shriver personally called on every single member of Congress … Shriver and Moyers launched each day with a breakfast on Capitol Hill with several congressmen. Following breakfast they would wander the congressional office buildings, going from appointment to appointment, preaching the gospel of the Peace Corps.

    The coronavirus pandemic, however, will momentarily prevent us from literally following in the footsteps of Shriver and Moyers. Yet it was not merely their physical presence but rather their relentless determination that ultimately carried the day for groundbreaking Peace Corps legislation. And with 21st-century tools at our disposal — email, smartphones, social media, laptops, Zoom conferences — we can and must be equally relentless from our living rooms and kitchen tables.

    “One night I was leaving about seven-thirty and there was Shriver walking up and down the halls looking into the doors. He came in and talked to me. I still didn’t like the program but I was sold on Shriver—I voted for him.” 

    A key to success in advocacy is to build relationships with your lawmakers as a knowledgeable, credible voice for Peace Corps. Our 50 advocacy coordinators around the country and growing number of identified “grasstops” leaders who have direct connections to lawmakers are foundational to our advocacy mobilization. And we must continue to grow these groups across every region of the country.

    One night, Shriver and Moyers were walking the halls and came upon the office of Barry Goldwater, the notoriously conservative senator from Arizona … Moyers told (Shriver) not to bother, that they had no chance of winning over Goldwater. Shriver recalls “I said, ‘Well I’m sure that we’re not going to get him if we never even ask him.’ So we rapped on the door and went in and fortuitously he was there and willing to talk to us. We talked for an hour at which he said, ‘That sounds like a great idea. I’ll vote for it.’”

    I regularly remind advocates that meetings with less supportive lawmakers are the most important of all. Over time, such meetings have yielded numerous instances where personal outreach has resulted in an unexpected victory — or, at the very least, a neutralized opposition to the work Peace Corps does. Consider the summer of 2019, when more than 10,000 messages were sent to Congress in one week to successfully oppose a House amendment that included a one-year elimination of the Peace Corps appropriation. A year later, amid staggering unemployment, enormous economic stimulus efforts and skyrocketing deficits, amendments to the House appropriations bill included no proposed cuts to Peace Corps.

    As August (1961) approached it became apparent that the biggest obstacle to (passing Peace Corps legislation) was not, for the moment, Republicans hostile to foreign assistance but rather the indifference of Arkansas senator William Fulbright, who chaired the all-important Foreign Relations Committee. Fulbright was a Democrat and for the most part friendly to the administration, but he was highly skeptical about the Peace Corps’ potential effectiveness.

    Among both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, Peace Corps has many friends. Nearly 40 percent of Congress signed 2020 letters supporting strong Peace Corps funding. Nevertheless, we are entering a challenging period when many important domestic and international issues will be competing for congressional attention and support. In the 40 years since the first RPCVs began serving in Congress, 2021 will mark the low point with John Garamendi as the only serving RPCV. It is imperative that Peace Corps supporters in Congress increasingly become Peace Corps champions, placing successful redeployment high on their priority list. That said, the Peace Corps has its skeptics who will question parts of its mission. There are fiscal conservatives who will push back on Peace Corps funding. And we continue to live in an age of hyperpartisanship.

    In March (1963) the New York Times columnist James Reston had written … “The Peace Corps … stands above the rest as the only thing new and vigorous that has managed to avoid the pessimism of intractable problems.”

    Just as the Peace Corps was new and invigorating in the early 1960s, the year 2021 presents an unparalleled opportunity to renew the agency, inspire once more the next generation of Volunteers, and recapture the imagination of the general public. Much has changed in the past 60 years, and the need for transformation and improvements within the Peace Corps — as expressed by hundreds of community members during town halls, a global ideas summit, and conversations since — is reflected in the recent report presented to National Peace Corps Association, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future.” A copy is included in the Winter 2021 print edition of WorldView. We have been meeting with members of Congress, the transition team, and the agency to bring these ideas into action.

    This existential moment for Peace Corps will require extraordinary engagement. There remains enormous untapped potential within our own community. We must all seize this moment of renewal and reform. It will not come our way again. 


    Jonathan Pearson is the Director of Advocacy for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Micronesia 1987–89. Ready to step up? Contact advocacy@peacecorpsconnect.org.

     

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic see more

    On the nature of a virus. On community. And on systems — how they function and how they break.

    By Steven Boyd Saum

    Illustration by Maria Carluccio 

     

    The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic hit a sobering milestone in the United States last spring when we marked the death of 100,000 Americans. By September, that number had doubled. The year 2020 concluded with some 350,000 dead in the United States alone, and 1.82 million lives lost worldwide.

    The pandemic has driven home some crucial lessons — if we pay attention. Not lessons we wanted to learn. But many of them are hard truths we need in order to face a changed world. Lessons about the nature of a virus, yes, but also about community: how we give of ourselves in times of need, how we listen or how we fail to hear. Lessons about systems: how they function and how they break.

     

    In the stories we have put together here are a few lessons for the time of coronavirus from across the Peace Corps community. From an epidemiologist in Los Angeles, whose research has kept her connected with the Democratic Republic of the Congo for years: recognition that the oft-praised but far less supported Third Goal of the Peace Corps — which speaks of bringing understanding of the world back home to the United States — is not touchy-feely stuff by a long shot. It’s a matter of life and death.

     

    Bringing understanding of the world back home to the United States is not touchy-feely stuff by a long shot. It’s a matter of life and death.

     

    From a registered nurse in Washington, D.C., who found her calling in public health while serving as a Volunteer in Guatemala — and in spring 2020 moved away from her family, including a pre-school-aged daughter, to shield loved ones from possible infection while she tried to save the lives of patients infected with the virus: Know what this means.

    From a returned Volunteer who can see the hills of Tijuana from her house and manages a free medical clinic: a lesson in taking part in the trials of the Pfizer vaccine

    And across the country, lessons in gratitude and what endures: How the work we do, in solidarity and seeking understanding, echoes across continents and decades. In this case, how service by some 2,000 Volunteers in South Korea in support of education and healthcare years ago translates into the long work of building peace and friendship — and in 2020 brought of hundreds of COVID-19 Survivor Boxes to those Volunteers, to honor and thank them for empowering people in a time of hardship. 

    To a cohort of returned Volunteers — some of whom were evacuated from service around the world in March because of the pandemic — now working as contact tracers in Seattle and King County, Washington: messages of admiration and encouragement from Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Peter Kilmarx of the National Institutes of Health.


    Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView magazine.

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    Pandemic Lessons: A nurse in the nation’s capital see more

    Pandemic Lessons: A nurse in the nation’s capital

    By Rose Conklin

    Illustration by Maria Carluccio

     

    The end of March, April, we were getting hit hard with COVID in Washington, D.C. It was really still an unknown illness, but it was everywhere. I had started a float position as a registered nurse at George Washington University Hospital, working on the medical surgical units and in the ER, sometimes helping out ICU nurses, wherever they needed me most. I was on the COVID medical surgical floor a lot of shifts in those months. A lot of nurses were scared in the beginning — having to put on the PPE and wear a mask the whole day, not something we were used to doing before the pandemic.

    Like many working with COVID patients, I was worried about my family — my partner and our daughter, who was three at the time. We were living in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment. A doctor I worked with told me about someone with Airbnb in our neighborhood; she hadn’t been able to rent it out, and she wanted to help. Another nurse and I took her up on it. Deciding to move away from one’s family during a time like this is a very personal decision. We were there for five weeks. 

    I didn’t really see my family much during that time — because of concern that we could get COVID and be asymptomatic, then pass it on. It was hard, not seeing my daughter except through FaceTime and in a socially distant way. She couldn’t hug me, and I couldn’t hug her.

     

    It was hard, not seeing my daughter except through FaceTime and in a socially distant way. She couldn’t hug me, and I couldn’t hug her.

     

    By the end of those five weeks, I had gotten tested several times: nasally, through saliva, and through a study in the ER for antibodies. I came back negative for all. In May, my family moved together into a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment.

    We were learning more about COVID, even though we were getting mixed signals from the CDC. That is frustrating, because the hospital makes changes based on those guidelines. For patients who were alone and not allowed visitors, it was hard. Some were depressed. In general, even before the pandemic, as hospital nurses, we spend most of the time with patients, and that was similar during the pandemic. 

     

    We were the main ones going in while on contact and airborne precautions. Doctors make decisions based on daily or as-needed in-person evaluations, and on the vital signs, blood work, and clinical observations that are obtained from nurses and techs. COVID patients can decompensate really quickly. You have to be aware of that. We had patients on continuous cardiac monitoring and continuous pulse ox. The concern for COVID is oxygen level going down too quickly. We were able to monitor that. 

    The ICU is where COVID patients were intubated. When a patient was really decompensating, they did the Hail Marys — including the meds like President Trump got, but also tPA, tissue plasminogen activator — a med for patients who have ischemic strokes, because COVID can produce clotting. There were patients getting 100 percent oxygen on ventilators, yet the patients’ oxygen level would be in the 60s or 70s for days. At that point, staff start to talk with the family; letting them come and look at the patient through the window in the door while a nurse puts a phone to the patient’s ear, even though they’re intubated and sedated.


    What you need to get through it

    Before the pandemic, I would talk to loved ones about the importance of hygiene. They would say, “Oh, that’s Rose — she’s a nurse, and she’s all about the hand washing!” Now they’re all about it. 

    I served with Peace Corps in Guatemala 2008–11, as a Healthy Schools Volunteer and then a Volunteer leader. We would travel to smaller schools to help with healthy habits: getting access to clean water, and education with teachers and mothers. The director and founder of the program was Sergio Mack, a pediatrician and public health specialist. He planted the seed of this public health community program some 10 years prior and saw it grow.

     

    Right now this pandemic seems never-ending, but it is very temporary in the grand scheme of things. 

     

    Working with Peace Corps and interpreting with medical missions deepened my interest in healthcare. Back in D.C. I got a job working with a nonprofit organization focused on early intervention: visiting families with children under 3 who were getting physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy. Often they were Spanish-speaking. It was like I had taken my world experience home. And I went to nursing school at Johns Hopkins, thanks in part to a Coverdell Fellowship.

    I talked to my site mate from Peace Corps when the COVID pandemic was starting to ramp up. I told her that it was strange, but the isolation when I left my family kind of felt similar to the Peace Corps experience. It’s very different in another sense, being socially distant within the community. But similar in the sense of what you need to get through it: to be resilient, tenacious, hardworking, patient.


    The months ahead

    Right now this pandemic seems never-ending, but it is very temporary in the grand scheme of things. Just like Peace Corps, it’s one to two years of your life — depending on how it’s managed — and then it’s over. We can take away from that experience how to live a healthier lifestyle; it’s knowledge-building.

    I got the first dose of the vaccine on January 4, and I plan to get the second dose on January 27. At the same time, after the holidays, we’re bracing ourselves for infections that might come before the vaccine kicks in. If it hits, what are we going to do?
     

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    Pandemic Lessons: A vaccine trial participant see more

    Pandemic Lessons: A vaccine trial participant

    By Tia Huggins

    Illustration by Maria Carluccio 

     

    For the past six years I’ve served as director of care coordination at Imperial Beach Community Clinic, south of San Diego. Last year one provider at the clinic put out an email about the trial for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. I thought, I want to do that. It’s a contribution to your community, and participants were paid. A lot of people think it must be scary to do this. I wasn’t worried. To put it in stark terms, I’ve worked in hospice, and I think suffering is a lot worse than death. 

    I was sure I got the vaccine; I had side effects for about three days after both times — headache and fatigue. Two weeks after the first vaccine in October, I had diarrhea all day. After the second one I felt nauseated. I don’t have that good of an imagination.

     

    First time I went in, one doctor asked, “When are we going to find out whether we got the vaccine or the placebo?”

     

    The vaccine administration took place at the California Research Foundation. It’s sort of like an assembly line; there are a lot of people, and they ask if you’re having symptoms. The first time they draw blood, the second time you come in just for the vaccine. I go back for a visit in February. In between, we have an app where we register once a week. If you are having symptoms, they call. 

    A lot of doctors came in to do it. First time I went in, one doctor asked, “When are we going to find out whether we got the vaccine or the placebo?” Two years, they said, when our part of the trial would be done. “I’m withdrawing,” that doctor said, “if that means that when the vaccine comes on the market, and I don’t know whether I got it or not, and that I won’t be able to get it.” They said hold on; they checked, then said when a vaccine comes on the market, we’ll tell everybody. At the end of December they told me: I had received the vaccine.

    Peace Corps and the pandemic

    I was an older Volunteer when I went into the Peace Corps in 2007. For years I taught Spanish at Iowa State University. I turned 50 in Guatemala, working with the Healthy Schools program. Rose Conkin was in the group that followed me, and I thought she did a wonderful job. After serving in Peace Corps, both Rose and I became nurses. 

    In 2020, for about four months, my daughter wouldn’t let me get near the grandchildren because she was afraid I would give them COVID from somebody at the clinic. Mostly I’m working from home, though at our clinic, anybody who goes in has to get tested.

     

    Taking the vaccine was a volunteer opportunity, too, which is just the mentality that you take into everything that you do after Peace Corps, that sense of shared humanity as you go through the rest of your life.

     

    In terms of day-to-day living, the pandemic hasn’t seemed so hard. Peace Corps was more difficult. We learned key coping skills. Taking the vaccine was a volunteer opportunity, too, which is just the mentality that you take into everything that you do after Peace Corps, that sense of shared humanity as you go through the rest of your life.


    Bring the solution

    Community clinics are part of the safety net for people in need. Our providers are dedicated; they want to take care of people. During the pandemic, most of our providers go in once a week to see patients in person. A couple providers who are older have not gone in; they’re trying to see patients over the phone. Medicare won’t pay for virtual visits unless it’s video — but those patients are often older and can barely use a phone, much less video. Our providers said, We don’t care whether we get enough money or not. 

    But you can’t give a vaccine over the phone, take blood pressure over the phone. One thing we have been doing, especially for people diagnosed as positive for COVID: ordering pulse oximeters, which will monitor oxygen saturation level, and home blood pressure monitors. We have a drive-by area, tarps out in the parking lot, for COVID testing. We’re going to continue to be part of this important work taking care of people. We’ll be giving out the vaccine. I’d like to be part of the system that will bring the solution.

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    Epidemiologist Anne Rimoin on listening to community — and bringing global understanding back home see more

    Pandemic Lessons: Epidemiologist Anne Rimoin on the importance of listening to community. And how a public health problem anywhere can be a public health problem everywhere.

    From a conversation with WorldView editor Steven Boyd Saum

    Photo by Peter Israel

     

    In epidemiology, you have to look at things holistically. And in the midst of this pandemic, as an epidemiologist whose whole career trajectory was shaped by my experience with the Peace Corps, I find myself asking: What does Peace Corps have to do with how we respond to COVID — and how we need to do more? Peace Corps is all about working in a community; my work, whether related to COVID or not, is really about having your ear to the ground in the community and understanding the community’s perceptions — and understanding how important local community is in terms of being able to effectively run public health interventions. 

    A case in point: We’ve learned over and over again with Ebola outbreaks that you have to pay attention to local community leaders and understand their perspective. Having empathy and creating relationships to reach that understanding, and targeting communication to what’s really happening — that’s critical. 

    The window that Peace Corps Volunteers have into that — that we have to bring our experiences in working in communities globally back home locally — is so important now. It is going to be critical in terms of being able to get to the other side of this pandemic, whether we’re talking about vaccine hesitancy, wearing masks, social distancing, or basic public health measures. In public health, everything that I do, I lead with listening to community.

    This is a matter of life and death. Bringing the world back home has never been more important.

     

    This pandemic has shone a light on how we are no different than anywhere else.

     

    We always think that this is the “Third Goal,” the last thing out there in the Peace Corps experience. But our country has never been more vulnerable. This pandemic has shone a light on how we are no different than anywhere else. And that an infection anywhere can be an infection everywhere; a public health problem anywhere is a public health problem everywhere. 

    The whole idea of “global is local, and local is global” has never been more important. We have not been paying attention to the community here in the same way that we do overseas.


    Information and misinformation

    Whenever you have lack of information and lack of communication, you open the door for disinformation, misinformation, and misconceptions. We’ve seen this happen over and over again in the United States. 

    I served with the Peace Corps in Benin in the 1990s, in the village of Bopa. As a Guinea worm eradication volunteer, my job was disease surveillance and health communication. The lessons I learned there are important today: You must be able to have direct and open conversation and communication with community leaders. Those leaders are not just the politicians; they are people who are key to the community. In a place like Benin, they could be traditional healers. Here, they’re religious leaders, sports figures, celebrities — where people get their information. 

    When I was in Benin, there was a Guinea worm song contest: Every village had a contest to come up with the best song about how to avoid getting Guinea worm — which you do by filtering your water and some basic public health steps. That sounds quaint, but it’s really a perfect example of great public health communication stemming from grassroots communities and finding creative ways to get the message out. Beninois culture really embraces music, so it was a genius idea that every community got involved in.

     

    The human experience

    We in the United States have always felt like we were different. We’ve held ourselves as being so much more sophisticated and that these things don’t apply to us here. But they really do. And isn’t that one of the big lessons of Peace Corps? The hubris that we feel as Americans might be tempered a little; we might be a little more open to learning about other cultures — and what we can learn from them to do better here.

    The three goals of Peace Corps are essential. Training people in low-resource settings and helping promote better understanding of Americans — both of those are certainly important. But bringing home the understanding of what’s going on in the world is so critical going forward. “What do countries want and need? How can we be of assistance?” Answering those questions takes a lot of listening. As Americans, we’re really great at talking. We haven’t always been so great at listening. This last year of the pandemic just demonstrates how critical listening is.

     

    Public health work in Lomela, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Anne Rimoin, left, is currently stateside, but an entire team of Congolese and UCLA field director Nicole Hoff are there full time. Photo courtesy Anne Rimoin

     

    So is community. In the United States, people are not used to public health crises affecting their daily lives. In Africa, people are — and they understand the need to pull together as a community. That definitely has had an impact. Los Angeles County, where I am, is the most populous county in the United States. It’s extremely diverse; you have a lot of frontline workers and multigenerational households; and a lot of pandemic fatigue. Together, that has probably created the perfect storm, possibly in addition to a more contagious strain circulating. And it has created a situation where we have a public health emergency on our hands.

     

    How the pieces fit together 

    As a professor at UCLA, I have continued to run my research here in Los Angeles: working on asymptomatic infection, immunity, and occupational exposures for healthcare workers and first responders, as well as studies for veterinarians and veterinary clinics. Our team in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been continuing work as well, which is extremely important: with Ebola survivors from outbreaks in 1976 and 1995 to the recent outbreak, working with healthcare workers and trying to understand exposures. An entire team of Congolese and UCLA field director Nicole Hoff are there full time. So we’re continuing to collect samples and do studies in DRC — where COVID hasn’t hit as hard. That needs to be studied as well. And we’re continuing studies to understand population immunity to vaccine-preventable diseases.

    At the Center for Global and Immigrant Health, which I direct, we’ve been continuing to support global health, locally and globally. That includes learning from people working overseas and what their experience with COVID has been. At the same time, we’re trying to reimagine what global health is going to look like in the future, how we’re going to get back to working in partnership overseas; many projects have been grounded. 

     

    In public health, having the long game in mind — the essence of Peace Corps — is key.

     

    Global public health work is changing profoundly. In the time since I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, a lot of capacity has developed on the ground, as well as the ability to build more capacity. This pandemic has shown how important that is. People in a country should be able to do the work themselves on the ground, so that it really becomes a collaborative partnership — not a situation of people from high-resource settings going to low-resource settings, doing the work, and leaving. Having the long game in mind — the essence of Peace Corps — is key. The pandemic will definitely have an impact in that global health will be reimagined: by growing grassroots capacity, thinking through a new way forward.

    When I started as a Volunteer in Benin in the early 1990s, in terms of public health there was very little infrastructure. The internet and cellphones have completely changed the landscape in terms of public health communication. I was in a village where there was one phone that didn’t really work. It’s very difficult to do surveillance in those circumstances. There are now good schools of public health in Africa, and people who have been trained elsewhere and come back and are able to lead public health and scientific work.

    In the months ahead, I’m hoping to see vaccines rolling out with equitable distribution globally, since that will be an important way forward. What’s also going to be important is monitoring variants of COVID that are cropping up, and how that may impact vaccine effectiveness and treatment effectiveness. Viral surveillance is going to be critical: being able to collect samples globally and sequence them to see if the virus is continuing to mutate — which it will.


    Debt and investment

    I feel a debt to Peace Corps; it changed my life and how I think about the world. The experience informs everything that I do. And while I know “the toughest job you’ll ever love” is no longer their tagline, it’s so true! It really was the hardest thing I ever did. Why? Because it’s dealing with culture: listening and understanding and trying to respond to the needs of a local community. That’s really hard.

    At Middlebury College I was a history major, focused on Africa — though I didn’t know what I would do with it career-wise. As a musician, I was interested in the music industry; I actually interned at IRS Records and thought I would become a music entertainment lawyer. I was going to take the LSAT while I was in Peace Corps. Because I spoke French, I was offered a position in Benin with this perfect public health program. My dad was a respected medical geneticist and scientist. I didn’t think I would go in that direction; really, I was intimidated. But instead of going to law school, I ended up getting a master’s in public health. My dad used to say I avoided science like the plague — and became a scientist studying plagues. That was all because of my Peace Corps experience. 

    In a very real sense, the investment in Peace Corps is an investment globally and an investment locally. It does change how Volunteers view and interact with the world. We need a lot more people who have that perspective.

  • Steven Saum posted an article
    How service as Volunteers shaped careers in public health, teaching, and more see more

    How service as Volunteers shaped careers in public health, teaching, and more — for Americans and Koreans alike

    By NPCA Staff

    Photo: Survival box, delivered to Gary Krzic, President of Friends of Korea. Photo courtesy Gary Krzic

     

    The gifts of more than 500 COVID-19 survival boxes to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in South Korea inspired news stories across the country. Here are a few. As some note, the Korea Foundation, which sent the boxes, coordinated with Friends of Korea, the group of returned Volunteers, to find and thank them.

    The Korea Foundation also created a video. A story about returned Volunteer Sandra Nathan in The New York Times, which also apperas in WorldView, drew hundreds of comments as well. Read those comments here.

     

     

    “Korea taught me … and it gave me my career.”

    Paul Courtright’s lifelong work in public health began when he traveled to South Korea as a Volunteer in 1979 to work with leprosy patients. Courtright “didn’t know anything about leprosy, once thought to be so contagious and incurable its victims were sent into isolation in leper colonies on islands and in remote places,” as John Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune and Los Angeles Times. Actually, leprosy is treatable, and it does not spread easily. But, Wilkens writes, “Stigma still surrounded the patients in Korea, Courtright found when he arrived there after three months of Peace Corps language training. And he noticed something else — about 10 to 15 percent of the people were blind.” Accompanying patients to a hospital where an ophthalmologist treated them, Courtright “took what he learned back to his village of about 600 people, and then to other resettlement communities.” 

     

    After Peace Corps, Courtright earned a master’s at Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in public health from University of California, Berkeley. For decades his work has been focused on health work to tackle preventable blindness, particularly in Africa. As Courtright told Wilkens, “Korea taught me many things, and it gave me my career.” Courtright and his wife, Dr. Susan Lewallen, also established the Kilimanjaro Center for Community Ophthalmology, with this mission to foster “high-quality eye care services provided by Africans for Africans.”

    When Courtright received a box from the Korea Foundation, he emailed thanks to foundation president Geun Lee. Lee’s quick reply: “Though decades have passed, the country where you spent years of your cherished youth has not and will not forget that affection … We return it and will continue to pass it down from generation to generation.”

     

    “Some hand sanitizer and a few masks.”

    That’s what Kathleen and Bud Wright expected when they got word that the Korea Foundation would be sending a box to them in New Jersey. Instead, as the Times Herald-Record notes, “There were 50 KF-94 masks and antimicrobial copper glove sets. There was a good-quality blue nylon backpack, and a tin of red ginseng candy. There was a silk fan.” Also: “In a black velveteen case with a gold-colored clasp, tucked into silk pouches, were two sets of silver-plated chopsticks and spoons with a turtle design.” There were messages sent from Koreans via Instagram put into a booklet of thanks and well-wishes.

    The Wrights served as Volunteers 1973–75, teaching English at Konkuk University in Seoul. Kathleen’s scholarship and teaching as a professor at State University of New York, Orange, took her around the world — including back to South Korea for research. She and other Volunteers also returned to South Korea in 2008 for a visit sponsored by the Korea Foundation.

     

    Students and teachers: Seong Su Middle and High School, Chunhceon, 1971. To the right of Volunteer Dan Holt is his co-teacher Youngok Park; they co-authored the Methodology for Teachers guide used throughout middle schools. Holt went on to serve as TEFL advisor for the Peace Corps office in Seoul. Park succeeded him. Photo courtesy Friends of Korea


    Full circle

    Russ Dynes traveled to South Korea as a Volunteer in 1972, assisting at a health clinic in a small farming community in the southwestern region of Gochang. The crisis at that time: an outbreak of tuberculosis, he told the Newark Post. As part of his work, Dynes would accompany nurses on visits to the countryside. Post–Peace Corps, he went to work with the Delaware Division of Public Health on a lead poisoning control program. New Jersey is home for Dynes now. As the Post notes, the arrival of the gift box was bringing the journey of service full circle.


    Speak your peace

    When we at WorldView reached out to Sandra Nathan, she wrote: “The Peace Corps’ mission is ‘to promote world peace and friendship’ … I would love to hear from other returned Volunteers who are continuing their work to promote peace and friendship and interested in the campaign to achieve peace in the Korean peninsula.” About that, she adds: “I am working with a local U.S. organization, Women Against War, to support Koreans’ wishes for a peaceful peninsula and will also be lobbying my Congressman and Senators to co-sponsor a bill to formally end the Korean war.” No peace treaty was signed; an armistice has been in place since 1953. House Resolution 152 was introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) in 2019, calling for a formal end to the war. “An end to the war would help facilitate the negotiation of arms reduction and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Nathan writes, and it would facilitate “reunification of divided Korean and Korean-American families, people-to-people exchanges, humanitarian cooperation, and repatriation of service members’ remains.”

     

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    From South Korea, a token of gratitude to the Volunteers who served see more

    Decades ago, a young American woman served an impoverished South Korea as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now the country is an economic powerhouse, and it decided to send her a token of its gratitude.

    By Choe Sang-Hun

    Photo: Sandra Nathan teaching in South Korea. Courtesy Sandra Nathan


    Sandra Nathan spent 1966 to 1968 in a South Korean town as a young Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching English to high school girls. Fifty-two years later, Nathan, now back in the United States, received a care package from South Korea that nearly brought her to tears.

    Nathan, 75, had been feeling increasingly isolated at home in Stephentown, New York. Reports about the exploding number of COVID-19 cases in the United States had made her anxious about going outside, where experts warned of second and third waves of infection. Then, early in November 2020, she received a package labeled “COVID-19 Survival Box.” It was a gift from the South Korean government that contained ​100 ​masks and other items “as a token of our gratitude for your dedication to Korea.”

    “It was as if this box had been traveling to me since 1968,” s​aid Nathan, a retired civil rights and labor lawyer. “​There was something magical about the box. Some people, Korean people, very far away wanted to make sure that I was OK; that I had what I needed to fight a bad disease. They behaved as though they cared and were responsible for me.”​

     

    Departure: A Korean student presents a gift to Volunteer Phil Venditti (1977–78). Photo courtesy Friends of Korea

     

    Decades ago, ​South Koreans felt similarly toward Nathan and 2,000 other Peace Corps Volunteers. When the young Americans served as teachers and health care workers between 1966 and 1981, ​South Korea was a third-world country stricken by disease​​​, a dictatorship, poverty, and destruction left by the Korean War.

    South Korea is now one of the richest countries in the world, and its response to the coronavirus pandemic has been held up as an example for other nations, even as it deals with a small uptick in cases. In October, to pay back some of its debt, the government-run Korea Foundation said it was sending its COVID-19 Survival Boxes  to 514 former Peace Corps Volunteers.

    “Thanks in no small part to the help received from the Peace Corps,” the Korea Foundation’s president, Lee Geun, said in a letter ​in the box​, “Korea has since achieved an economic breakthrough.”

    Nathan joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Chicago. She was among the first Volunteers to arrive in South Korea and was assigned to Chuncheon, in the north, where she taught English at a local high school. She was 21.

     

    Health fair on tour: Volunteer Nancy Kelly (1979–81) dons a white coat to play midwife in a skit in which she talks with a pregnant woman and her mother-in-law, played by two fellow Volunteers, about maternal health and proper nutrition. Photo courtesy Nancy Kelly

     

    The country around Chuncheon was beautiful​. Its pine trees were graceful, and azaleas covered its hills in spring. But most of the streets were dirt roads. Children went outside without shoes. After dark, Nathan could hear rats running across ceilings. Plumbing was generally nonexistent.

    “An ongoing debate among Volunteers was whether Time or Newsweek was more absorbent,” Nathan said in an email interview. “Toilet paper was unavailable.”

    Both magazines came with pages blacked out by government censors. Crude anti-communist propaganda was everywhere. During her stay in South Korea, North Korea captured a U.S. Navy ship, the Pueblo, off its coast and sent armed commandos across the border to attack the South Korean presidential palace. On winter mornings, Nathan broke the ice in a plastic container in order to wash. Her school was a sad and drafty place where classrooms were heated by a single charcoal stove.

    “I began to feel uncomfortably cold so that when I was not teaching, I regularly followed the circling sun as it flooded through the windows around the school building,” she said. “Even when it was very cold, students did not wear coats to school or to morning assemblies, and probably no one had a coat.”

    But Nathan developed strong emotional ties with her students, who were eager to learn English. She once took a poor and sickly girl to an American military doctor for treatment for intestinal parasites, a common problem in Korea back then. The girl’s mother later arrived at the school and presented Nathan with several warm eggs, soft gray feathers still attached.

    “The eggs, which I am sure my student and her mother themselves needed, expressed such gratitude that I was close to tears,” she said.

    The irony of the reversal of fortunes during the pandemic did not escape her. South Korea continues to keep the coronavirus largely under control, thanks in part to its aggressive contact tracing. Although it has recently faced a small rise in infections, it is nothing compared to what is happening in the United States, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has announced harsh new restrictions in Nathan’s home state. In August, she received the offer from the Korea Foundation to send her the gift box​. She accepted, wondering​ if it was merely a public relations stunt for the Korean government.

     

    Contents may inspire: what’s inside the box. Photo courtesy Friends of Korea 

     

    “I did not think much about it until the box arrived on Saturday, November 7, ironically the day that the U.S. presidential election was called for Joe Biden,” she wrote.

    Nathan said she delayed opening the package for about a week because she wanted to preserve the wonderful feeling that it gave her. In addition to the masks, the box also included gloves, skin-care products, ginseng candies, a silk fan and two sets of silver chopsticks and spoons with the traditional Korean turtle design.

    “I am a practical person, not usually given to ideas unfounded by fact,” wrote Ms. Nathan. “But there was definitely something magical about the box.”


    This story originally appeared in The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.

     

    MORE TO THIS STORY

    Communities across the United States have shared the stories of how returned Volunteers in their communities served with the Peace Corps in South Korea — and found their lives profoundly touched by this gesture decades later. We’ve gathered some of them here.

  • Communications Intern posted an article
    Jody Olsen stepped down as Director of the Peace Corps on January 20. see more

    She led the Peace Corps Agency since 2018 — and through the unprecedented global evacuation of all Volunteers from countries where they were serving.

    By NPCA Staff

     

    On January 20, Jody Olsen stepped down from her post as Director of the Peace Corps to make way for a new team to be appointed by the Biden administration. Taking on the leadership role for the time being is Carol Spahn, who had been serving as chief of operations for Africa.

    Olsen was sworn in as director in March 2018. The challenges she and the agency faced in the past year were unprecedented: In March 2020, as COVID-19 swept around the world, Olsen made what she described as “the most difficult decision of my life” — to evacuate all Peace Corps Volunteers from their posts. The pandemic and protests against racial injustice, and a focus on how systemic racism has affected U.S. institutions, including Peace Corps, created what many have seen as a moment of reckoning for the Peace Corps community. Then came a campaign to deny the results of the 2020 presidential election.

    “The transition from one Executive branch administration to the next is a hallmark of our constitutional democracy,” Olsen wrote in announcing her departure. Her decades-long connection to Peace Corps began with her serving as a Volunteer in Tunisia (1966–68). She served as country director in Togo (1977–81), then as a regional director, as chief of staff, and as deputy director (2002–09).

    In a tumultuous time, Olsen guided the agency and thousands of Volunteers through rough political, societal, and global challenges. National Peace Corps Association has invited members of the Peace Corps community to send her a message of thanks, gratitude, or remembrance by January 31. Messages from across the Peace Corps community will be compiled and shared with her in thanks for her service.

     

    Acting Director Carol Spahn

    Carol Spahn carries the title of acting director. She has over 25 years of experience in international development, business, health, and women’s empowerment. Spahn served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania (1994–96) and country director in Malawi (2014–19). With the scale of tasks before the new administration, it will likely be some months before a new director is appointed and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Read more about her and additional appointments to the agency here.

  • Ana Victoria Cruz posted an article
    The NPCA Emergency Response Network is seeking Returned Volunteers for contact tracing positions. see more

    In a pioneer program for the country, Seattle and King County deployed a cohort of Returned Volunteers this fall. Now they have partnered with National Peace Corps Association to expand the role of the NPCA Emergency Response Network. And Returned Volunteers are wanted for contact tracing now.

    By Steven Boyd Saum

     

    In response to the surge in cases of COVID-19, National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) and Seattle Peace Corps Association (SEAPAX) have put out an urgent call to action for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to serve as contact tracers with the Seattle and King County Health Department.

    In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, more than 7,300 Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated from around the world. Multiple pieces of national legislation have called for the deployment of evacuated Volunteers as a group as contact tracers, but those have stalled in Congress.

    Seattle and King County led the way with the first cohort of Volunteers serving as contact tracers as part of the new NPCA Emergency Response Network. Some of the Volunteers were evacuated this year, and some served in Peace Corps years before. They include retired health professionals. They served in countries including China and Morocco, Uganda and Uzbekistan, Albania and the Philippines. And they have been working seven days a week calling people who have been exposed to someone who tested positive with the virus.

    Now King County is seeking to expand the program.

     

    Dedication and Purpose

    Renowned infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci offered words of encouragement and inspiration to the first cohort of contact tracers. “I am a longstanding admirer of your passion and dedication to a purpose greater than yourselves,” Dr. Fauci told the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. “I am profoundly grateful for your resilience and your adaptability that has enabled you to transfer your skills and commitment to this urgent need in our country to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control.”

    Dr. Peter Kilmarx, deputy director of the Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes of Health, welcomed the first cohort of Peace Corps contact tracers by Zoom. With decades of experience working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Kilmarx served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1980s in Democratic Republic of Congo, then known as Zaire.

     

    “Done right, contact tracing is very effective,” Dr. Peter Kilmarx told the Volunteers.

     

    “Done right, contact tracing is very effective,” Dr. Kilmarx told the Volunteers. “In New Zealand, contact tracers brought the average time from onset of illness to isolation from 7.2 days in March, to negative 2.7 days in April. That means that on average, cases were isolated 2.7 days before they fell ill, and local transmission in New Zealand dropped to zero.”

    Dr. Kilmarx also noted that efforts go back months to involve more returned Volunteers in contact tracing. “If you ask me, ‘What makes a great contact tracer?’ I would say, ‘A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer,’ or anyone with that kind of resilience, cultural competence, and a spirit of service to the community.”

    Dan Baker directs the Global Reentry Program for National Peace Corps Association, an initiative brought online quickly earlier this year to assist evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers, and now serving Returned Volunteers more broadly. He is fielding applications for the contact tracing positions, and he notes: “We are open to interest and applications from all states, but especially Washington state.”

    Returned Peace Corps volunteers who are interested in serving as contact tracers should email response@peacecorpsconnect.org or call Dan Baker at National Peace Corps Association at (202) 934-1534.

    Find out more about the NPCA Emergency Response Network here.