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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.