One year after evacuation from the Philippines: A Peace Corps Volunteer on the trauma of leaving see more
One year after being evacuated from the Philippines, a Peace Corps Volunteer faces the trauma of leaving, the country he returned to, and a question that’s impossible to answer.
By Rok Locksley
Work and friendship: Rok Locksley, left, with Ban-Ban Nicolas. Photo courtesy Rok Locksley
The last day of my Peace Corps service was Friday, March 13, 2020. Together with my wife, Genevieve, I was serving in the Peace Corps in the Philippines. We had gotten up early to enjoy the sunrise on what we knew would be our last day on the island that had become our home.
My counterpart was Ban-Ban Nicolas, with whom I was collaborating on marine conservation efforts on an island near Cebu. I called him Ban2x. And over the course of service, we developed a deep friendship.
Ban2x arrived at our host family’s house early in the morning in his family car. He would shuttle us to the seaport. Airports had already shuttered. He knew we were on the last boat off the island, and he wanted to make sure we got to the port safely.
We loaded our bags into his car, and he promised to look after our things, to check in on our dogs and our house. At this point we thought we were just being consolidated: all Volunteers gathered together temporarily. On the drive, Ban2x and I made promises to keep each other updated and what the estimates were for returning after consolidation — we were speaking in that awkward way that you do when you have so much you want to say but lack the words or ability to properly express how much you value the other person.
As I made my way onto the bridge to the boat that would carry me literally and figuratively out to sea, I turned for one last look at my friend and said, “It’s not goodbye, just until we see each other again.”
We got out of the car and I could see tears welling up in his eyes. I could feel them in mine. We lingered until the last possible minute. As I made my way onto the bridge to the boat that would carry me literally and figuratively out to sea, I turned for one last look at my friend and said, “It’s not goodbye, just until we see each other again.”
I got on the boat, found a seat, and sat down gingerly. Everything was moving in a surreal way. At first I thought it was the rocking waves, but then I started to feel my world crashing around me. There was everything we had left behind: our project, our year-old dogs who had cried and tried to squirm under the fence to get in the car as we drove away. My host family, with tears in their eyes. My coworkers, their faces grimaced in shock when I told them the day before that I had to leave.
I began the journey back to the United States, but I would not be returning home. My home was in the Philippines.
Where do we go from here? Photo by Rok Locksley
The boat carried us to a larger island where we met up with other Peace Corps Volunteers. We managed to catch the last boat off of that island, and we sat there on the top deck of a ferry, rocking in the sea, surrounded by tourists trying to figure out if they should stay or go. As for us 30 Volunteers, we were shell-shocked and broken, leaving through no choice of our own. We didn’t really talk. What was there to say?
About two hours into the five-hour ferry trip, our phones chirped and pinged and vibrated at the same time with an alert. It was an ominous sound, and it carried a message that changed our lives. The director of the Peace Corps had declared the evacuation of all Volunteers. That is how we found out that our service was over: On a boat, rocking in the sea, carrying what random items we had shoved into our backpacks in a state of trauma. Some of us cried. Some tried to call their families. Some stared off across the waves, trying to soak up the last of the Philippines. Most, like me, were simply in shock. And desperately trying to figure out what to do next.
Back in the States, we could not go to my parents’ house or my wife’s parents’ house, because of COVID-19. I knew that the evacuation route would take us through numerous airports, and I was sure I was getting exposed. The risk was not worth it to my family; health and age put them in the at-risk population. My grandparents’ house was out. My uncles and aunts had young kids. We literally had nowhere to go.
I timidly reached out to a few people, inquiring about whether it might perhaps be possible maybe that … They made it clear, gently but firmly, that they did not want to risk the fact that I might be bringing the virus, especially coming from Southeast Asia. I understood.
We had given up ties in the States to join the Peace Corps. We had no house, no car, no job waiting. All that was waiting for us stateside: the terrifying horror of the unknown. Unknown if we had the virus. Unknown where we would sleep when we landed. Unknown where we could get health care or insurance or a job or food or winter clothes. Aside from what we carried, what possessions we owned were in a storage unit. And I was not sure how I was going to make the next payment on that.
As I was making calls from the boat and, later, from a hotel, trying to figure out where exactly we should attempt to fly to in the United States, a fellow Volunteer overheard my struggle. His family had a summer cabin in the Midwest. It wasn’t summer. But he offered it as a place of landing to us and a few other evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers for the mandatory two-week quarantine. We had no option other than the Peace Corps reimbursement for staying in a hotel. We gratefully chose the EPCV cabin.
The Facebook group for evacuated Volunteers was one of the few places we didn’t have to explain to others why this transition was so difficult, why we all felt lost at sea.
We ended up living there in quarantine from March until June. Three months of trying to make sense of what had happened — and was still happening around us. Three months of sleepless nights and tearful mornings. Three months of confusion, loss, and desperation. Three months of writing resumes and filling out applications. Three months of Zoom interviews and those awful hopes that come with searching for a job: of failing again and again. Three months of struggling alongside my fellow evacuees to find our new place in the pandemic world. Three months of every other American dealing with a new world and none of them understanding what had happened to us. The Facebook EPCV group was one of the few places we didn’t have to explain to others why this transition was so difficult, why we all felt lost at sea.
I talked to Ban2x at least once a week. That helped a bit. In the EPCV cabin, we shared our struggles with one another and tried to help others as best we could. Mostly we sat staring into space, thinking about all that had been ripped away — and what we were supposed to do next. I cannot imagine what it was like for Volunteers who had chosen the lonely hotel room for mandatory quarantine.
After three months, with the warmth of summer finally arriving, there was a changing of our seasons, too: We started to get hired or accepted into graduate school. I was fortunate to receive a Peace Corps Fellowship. Some of us got federal jobs, thanks to non-completive eligibility that comes with status as a returned Volunteer. Without the support of the RPCV network, National Peace Corps Association’s meetings and seminars, and Jodi Hammer’s counsel and advice through the Global Reentry Program, I don’t think any of us would have made a good transition out of that cabin.
This is water. Photo courtesy Rok Locksley
The problem with that question
I have recently had a few Returned Peace Corps Volunteers ask me what the hardest part about the evacuation was. The problem with the question is its premise; it makes it seem like the evacuation is over. For me it is not.
I am building a place that is starting to feel like home again in Illinois. And we did manage to get one of our dogs to the States in the fall. (The rest were poisoned, we found out later). I have school to focus on, but the evacuation is not an easily packaged life event. It was trauma and I am still experiencing it, working through it, processing it.
Every time I talk to Ban2x, I am filled with conflict about abandoning my work and my friends. I question whether I should have stayed on my island — which has had fewer cases than my neighborhood here in Illinois. Did we make the right choice to return to the United States? I still find myself trying to discern a morally correct answer to this question.
The reason that we have adopted the signifier EPCVs rather RPCVs is because we all came back at the same time to a nightmare version of America that was nothing like what we had left. This was not the place often dreamed of in our desperate moments of homesickness. This was a foreign land to us. The restaurants closed, the markets eerily empty, wide eyes of fear peeking over new masks — and other faces with self-assured smirks.
There is also this strange aspect to coming back with more than 5,000 other Americans: The people I was competing with for jobs were my friends and fellow EPCVs. The person’s spot I took for my graduate program was a fellow evacuee. For every one of us who got a federal job or fellowship, that meant another EPCV did not. I don’t mean that in the abstract. I mean it literally. We would have Zoom meetings with members of our cohort and find out we were all in the final round for the same job. Only one of us could get it.
I had previously met a few people who had lost their homes due to fire or other circumstances beyond their control. People who have walked out of a strange airport in a strange land without any idea of what to do next — but carrying a hope that life would get better. People who have relied on the charity and goodwill of others to survive. A year later these experiences are much less hypothetical and much more real. It helps me to understand their situation and seek out guidance from them.
Today, on the year anniversary of our evacuation, I had a conversation with my counterpart and best friend, Ban2x. Over the past year, we have kept in contact every week, updating each other on our lives, hopes, and dreams — all the while following up on the final steps of our project, which is finally almost at fruition. Ban2x and his wife go for regular rides on the bicycles that we left behind. They send photos over Messenger of their rides and adventures to some of our favorite spots. I get photos of gatherings in the community, and it is awesome to see folks in my community wearing clothes we left behind and using the items that didn’t make it into our suitcases in that frantic final morning packing session. A few months ago, Ban2x tried to send some of the more precious items to us, but international shipping costs during the pandemic made it effectively prohibitive. They were handed out or given away to our friends and co-workers.
The hardest part is that we are still going through it. Some of us are still waiting to return to service.
When we talk, Ban2x and I, each of us is searching for words trying to fill in those things are that are still left unsaid. We wonder when this will end, and what the world will look like when it does. He stays healthy and, because of the island’s precautions, the pandemic is less of a threat there than I feel here with my mandatory in-person classes. We plan for the theoretical reunion that might take place in the next few years. I talk about all the spots and things I want to share with him in America. He tells me about the changes in our community and celebrations I have missed. Ban2x, always the optimist, smiles and says things that would translate to something along the lines of “When the time is right” or “When fortune favors us.”
We laugh a bit more in recent weeks, but sometimes my laughs are a bit hollow. I know that I can’t just jump on a plane and visit anytime I want. And I can’t bring him here for a visit. I know it will be a few years before restrictions are lifted enough to allow us to visit our home again. Until then, despite the temporary roof over my head, my heart still feels homeless. I still feel like I am adrift on the sea, packed in with all the other EPCVs rocking in a boat with no port, and wondering what happens next.
That is what it is like to have been evacuated during the pandemic. Generally, my experience is too much go through just to answer the question “What was the hardest part?” The gap is too wide. The cut is still too deep. And although it is healing, it is a long way from being a faded memory.
Maybe the closest I can come to answering my fellow RPCVs’ questions about evacuation is this: The hardest part is that we are still going through it. Some of us are still waiting to return to service.
SHARE YOUR STORY
Are you a Volunteer who was evacuated because of COVID-19? Are you part of the Peace Corps community with a story to tell? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
We celebrate return of Volunteers to service. And pay tribute to a leader at NPCA. see more
As we celebrate Volunteers returning to service in dozens of countries, we pay tribute to a leader here at NPCA who made a difference at a critical time for the Peace Corps community.
By Dan Baker
At left: El Paso, 2019 — Glenn Blumhorst assists migrants at the border.
Just as the Winter 2023 edition of WorldView went press, Carol Spahn was sworn in as Director of the Peace Corps. I was delighted to be there as RPCV Rep. John Garamendi delivered the oath of office. This is an exciting and important moment. The Peace Corps community has spent nearly three years seeking to maintain and restore Volunteer programs across the world. There have been enormous obstacles, and the Peace Corps has emerged from the pandemic with a renewed clarity of purpose, better Volunteer services, and an undeniable sense of urgency that it hasn’t seen since its inception. And at the beginning of 2023, the return to service continues to gain strength and momentum, thanks to the hard work of hundreds of local Peace Corps staff, agency leaders, health and safety professionals, recruiters, and all of those who make these programs possible. We especially celebrate Volunteers boldly leading the way into the new Peace Corps.
The pandemic forced National Peace Corps Association, like many organizations, to pivot in unforeseeable ways. The past few years have arguably been the most important in the history of this community-driven organization. NPCA itself looks much different than it did even one year ago. One of the key changes we must acknowledge was the departure last year of NPCA’s longest-serving president and CEO, Glenn Blumhorst.
We celebrate Glenn’s important new role with the Peace Corps Commemorative Foundation, which will establish a commemorative just steps from the Capitol. At the same time, many at NPCA will greatly miss his leadership of the organization. I find it fitting to honor his tenure at NPCA in this edition of WorldView by sharing some of his Peace Corps story — and a few of his most important achievements.
Glenn launched his career with the Peace Corps, serving as an agriculture extension Volunteer in Guatemala 1988–91, supporting 18 rural Mayan Indian communities in the central highlands. Those who know his skills and dedication to service would not be surprised to know how successful he was as a Volunteer, working to increase household incomes, build an elementary school, and bring electricity to a remote village of 40 families. That work led him to nearly two decades of increasing leadership roles with the international development organization ACDI/VOCA. Then, in 2013, following a national search by NPCA, Glenn was brought on to serve as its president and CEO.
Community partners: In the highlands of Guatemala, from left, Manuel Alvarado, Tiburcio Alvarado, Carmelina Alvarado Gonzales, and Volunteer Glenn Blumhorst. Photo courtesy Glenn Blumhorst
Glenn soon set to work transforming NPCA: guiding the organization from struggling alumni association to a dynamic community-driven social impact enterprise. That new vision was informed in large part by Glenn’s “listening tours” across the country — meeting with NPCA affiliate group leaders, donors, and individual members to better understand their priorities. His travels took him to meet with members of the Peace Corps community in all 50 states — at potluck dinners and annual meetings, community service projects and RPCV reunions — to listen and share experiences and, together, plan for the future.
Glenn restored and strengthened NPCA’s financial health by adopting a new business model: moving away from a dues-paying membership to opening membership to all. NPCA invited community members to invest in and support causes they care about, and NPCA provided avenues for voluntary financial contributions. That quadrupled annual revenues, enabled us to triple our staff and grow programs, and exponentially increased member engagement in NPCA’s mission. RPCV affiliate groups grew as well, from 130 to 185 under Glenn’s leadership, with many focusing explicitly on specific social impact causes.
Glenn helped modernize NPCA’s advocacy program and grew constituent outreach. That fed successful efforts to increase Peace Corps’ federal appropriations by $30 million — and it helped fend off attempts to slash the agency’s budget (even defund it!) as well thwart an ill-advised attempt to fold the Peace Corps into the State Department. Along the way, Glenn ensured NPCA never lost sight of important reforms needed within the agency to improve Volunteer safety, security, healthcare, and post-service benefits. A milestone in that work: The Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act, signed into law in 2018, which improved the provisioning of healthcare for Volunteers, program oversight, and how the agency handles sexual assault allegations.
Living Peace Corps Ideals
The lack of services for returning Volunteers is something Glenn understood. He worked with NPCA to put in place — well before COVID-19 hit — the framework for the Global Reentry Program. That program was launched immediately when the global evacuation of Volunteers was announced in March 2020. (I stepped down from the NPCA Board to join the staff as director of the program.) The long-term vision is to provide a bridge between Volunteers’ service and a lifetime of Peace Corps ideals.
Amid the turmoil of the pandemic’s early days, NPCA also successfully lobbied for $88 million in additional support for Volunteers; and NPCA worked to get the U.S. Department of Labor to issue guidelines that evacuated Volunteers were eligible for help under the Pandemic Assistance Program.
Global partnership: In 2015 with Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama, Glenn Blumhorst marks the launch of the Let Girls Learn initiative. Photo by Pete Souza/The White House
In summer 2020, harnessing the experience, commitment, and innovative ideas of the Peace Corps community, NPCA convened a series of national town halls and a global ideas summit under the title Peace Corps Connect to the Future. A community-driven report from the summit contained over 220 recommendations to Congress, the Peace Corps agency and executive branch, and the Peace Corps community. It has served as a vital roadmap for many reforms and improvements that began being implemented by Peace Corps leadership prior to the return of Volunteers to service. It’s fair to say this community-driven effort also laid the groundwork for some of the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation proposals in a generation.
These are just a few of the initiatives Glenn led NPCA to tackle. There is the launch of the Community Fund to support community projects by Volunteers, returned Volunteers — and, beginning in 2020, evacuated Volunteers — in the U.S. and globally. There is the Benevolent Fund, to support RPCVs experiencing acute hardship. And in the future, there will be Peace Corps Place, envisioned as a hub for the Peace Corps community in the Truxton Circle neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
Glenn has begun leading a multimillion-dollar capital campaign to underwrite design and construction of the Peace Corps Commemorative. It will honor the creation of the Peace Corps in 1961 and those aspects of the American character exemplified by Peace Corps service. We are deeply grateful to Glenn for his past, present, and future service to Peace Corps ideals, and we look forward to celebrating this commemorative together when it is completed.
As a part of all that NPCA has accomplished under Glenn’s leadership, we have seen tremendous growth in how NPCA tells its stories. The past three years this work has been led by Director of Strategic Communications and Editor of WorldView Steven Saum. With thought and care, the WorldView team has crafted a magazine of powerful stories and images. Those efforts have earned top national awards the past two years. Behind the scenes, Steven also orchestrated NPCA’s social media presence, newsletters, and other publications — notably the “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” report. We are sorry to announce that this will be Steven’s last edition of WorldView magazine as he moves into a new role in California.
Interim successors for Glenn and Steven are in place, but we will stand on their shoulders as we move into the next chapters of support for a united and vibrant Peace Corps community. Please keep in touch, and stay connected online and through our email newsletters. And watch for more important Peace Corps news in upcoming editions of WorldView.
Dan Baker is President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Bolivia 1999–2002 and Timor-Leste 2002–03, and with Peace Corps staff in Washington, D.C., Costa Rica, and Ethiopia. Write him.
Communications Intern posted an articleMini-coaching dialogues on résumé critiques, mock interviews, job search strategy, and more see more
Mini-coaching dialogues on résumé critiques, mock interviews, job search strategy, and more
Photo courtesy Envato
By NPCA Staff
Wondering how to build the career you desire or execute an effective job search? National Peace Corps Association’s Global Reentry Program has launched twice-monthly Live [Virtual] Career Office Hours to provide assistance for small groups and individuals via mini-coaching dialogues on résumé critiques, mock interviews, job search strategy, and more.
Hosted by Global Reentry Career Specialist Jodi Hammer (Ecuador 1994–97), each session explores a different career topic, answers questions, and offers resources. Find upcoming sessions in January 2022 and beyond: peacecorpsconnect.org/events
Video: Returned Volunteers Share Some advice — “If you need help, reach out through the Global Reentry Program”In their own words: three Volunteers on how the Global Reentry Program has made a difference see more
Three returned Peace Corps Volunteers talk about some of the tough aspects of readjusting to life after service — including being evacuated in 2020. And how the Global Reentry Program has made a difference.
By Dan Baker
It’s been just over a year since National Peace Corps Association launched the Global Reentry Program to support evacuated Volunteers in a time of crisis. “If you need help, reach out to an RPCV through the Global Reentry Program, and you will find it,” says Hugh McIvor, a Volunteer who was evacuated from Costa Rica.
He and fellow returned Volunteers Mariana Cubillos (Panama 2018–20) and Jennifer Gonzales (Namibia 2015–18) talk about how the Global Reentry Program has made a tremendous difference for them.
The program continues to grow and expand support for returned Volunteers with readjustment at home after service, providing resources to overcome challenges and take the next steps toward healthy lives and successful careers.
The Global Reentry Program now encompasses programs such as Peer Support Circles, the ”Jobs with Jodi“ podcast, professional development webinars, intensive “boot camps” for job-seekers, programs geared specifically to mid-career professionals, and a virtual career fair.
It’s the right thing to do for the Peace Corps community — and supporting returning Volunteers helps amplify the value of their service for years to come.
Follow Global Reentry events on the NPCA calendar and by signing up for the monthly newsletter for details on new programs and offerings.
Questions and ideas? Email us at email@example.com
Dan Baker is Director of the Global Reentry Program.
A Bridge between Peace Corps Service and a Lifetime of Peace Corps Ideals see more
Global Reentry: A Bridge between Peace Corps Service and a Lifetime of Peace Corps Ideals
By Dan Baker
Just days after Peace Corps Volunteers began a global evacuation in March, National Peace Corps Association officially launched a program that had long been in the works — but was suddenly urgent: the Global Reentry Program to support the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, especially those evacuated this spring.
Global Reentry aims to connect returned Volunteers with the resources they need for personal and professional success as we also further the ideals of the Peace Corps. It’s geared to help recently evacuated Volunteers and those who closed their service in the last few years — as well as those who finished service decades ago. The purpose is to welcome Volunteers home with this assurance: We’re here for you.
This is part of our commitment to helping, individually and collectively, to translate the Peace Corps experience and ideals into successful careers, and to exponentially increase our social impact.
We’ve long understood that too few RPCVs are aware of — or able to access — either our network or the benefits available after they return. The truth is, our community has long supported fellow returned Volunteers. In March, along with unprecedented need from evacuated Volunteers, we also witnessed the global network mobilize like never before in support of returning Volunteers.
Illustration by Ken Orvidas
We have been flooded with offers of support from within our community: sharing advice through Facebook groups, signing up as career mentors, making donations, engaging in advocacy actions, and asking again and again, “How can I help?” This demonstration of solidarity is truly awe-inspiring.
So what does Global Reentry do? Open doors to career counseling services, educational opportunities for degree seekers and lifelong learners, avenues for seeking and advocating for health services, and also opportunities for continued social impact. Read more about these below.
We’re all part of a community of many thousands who recognize the sacrifice and accomplishments of every Peace Corps Volunteer, and the strengths and assets that you offer well beyond your host country assignments. Take a moment to join the Global Reentry program on the NPCA website. Bookmark our events calendar to join upcoming discussions.
Global Reentry marks our commitment to helping, individually and collectively, to translate the Peace Corps experience and ideals into successful careers, and to exponentially increase our social impact. While this program has tremendous potential, we look forward to hearing from you about your hopes, needs, and suggestions as we continue to build and sustained this program for the benefit of all current and future returned Volunteers.
We’re a community that knows how to act. And a community that listens.
Links RPCV career seekers to resources for conducting an effective job search: a series of webinars facilitated by experienced career counselors, podcasts, access to career mentorship programs, and job postings targeting RPCV candidates. A founding partner of the Employers of National Service program, NPCA and Global Reentry will use this new platform to continue encouraging employers to give consideration to RPCV candidates. We’re fortunate to have on our team Jodi Hammer, with years of experience helping RPCVs with career transitions. Check out her Jobs with Jodi podcast for starters.
Educational and Learning Opportunities
A clearinghouse for opportunities promoted by our many partner universities throughout the United States and abroad. Many RPCVs are also interested in staying up to speed in on international development efforts — particularly in their countries of service — as well as learning new ways to further the Peace Corps mission, or simply staying abreast of new and noteworthy service-related professional topics. We plan to build out information on these and other learning opportunities.
Transitioning from Peace Corps service is difficult, even in the best of times. It often takes years or even decades for RPCVs to rediscover the sense of community and belonging that they experienced as Volunteers. Many returning Volunteers have found great value in peer support from our community, and many have reached out with particular needs for support navigating or advocating for post- service health benefits. NPCA has long supported and championed these needs and groups of RPCVs in their efforts to improve access to such benefits, which they can continue to do through Global Reentry.
Continuation of Service
Our community is committed to furthering the ideals of the Peace Corps through promotion of the Third Goal — through continued service in our communities — and by helping Peace Corps be the best it can be. Global Reentry will help further individuals’ efforts by providing links to groups, organizations, and advocacy efforts that will increase our immediate social impact. That’s critical now, as we rally for causes that are of immediate concern to our community: as we stand up for racial justice for all, respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and combat climate change.
Dan Baker is Global Reentry Program Director at NPCA. He is an RPCV, Bolivia (1999-02) and East Timor (2002-03), has served on the board of directors of NPCA, and has held various Peace Corps staff positions between 2003 and 2016, including overseas program leadership positions in Costa Rica and Ethiopia.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:
STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.
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Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Communications Intern posted an articleAfter town halls and the summit, where do we go from here? see more
We thank you for your continued support and acknowledge the need for change. Closing remarks for Peace Corps Connect to the Future.
Thank you, Glenn. And thank you, Dr. Frederick, for your support. We look forward to continued engagement with you and with Howard University.
Fellow RPCVs and friends, on behalf of the National Peace Corps Association Board of Directors and as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Costa Rica from 2006 to 2008, I'm so grateful for the opportunity to engage with you today. Thank you for your passion for service, for your dedication and time, for your bold ideas to build a better future for the Peace Corps. As Volunteers, we lived and worked in communities across the globe to promote world peace and friendship. We answered the call to serve because we imagined a better world. And we're here today because we believe in a better future. As a community, we recognize that Peace Corps has its flaws. Within NPCA, we likewise acknowledge our own shortcomings. In embracing the need for change, we take time to reflect upon our history across our community within ourselves.
Watch: Maricarmen Smith-Martinez’s closing remarks for Peace Corps Connect to the Future
We are here because, for the first time since 1961, there are no Peace Corps Volunteers in the field. The global evacuation triggered by COVID-19 resulted in an unprecedented disruption of service for thousands of our PCVs, and many are eager to redeploy but face an uncertain environment.
We're here because racism is a systemic issue, and our community is not immune. The struggle for racial justice is embedded in the history of the Peace Corps, present in the early days of our founders, and demonstrated in the Volunteer experience today. We are here because we recognize these challenges and we champion your ideas to reimagine the future of the Peace Corps. With the social impact approach, NPCA works not only for our community, we are driven by you and the priorities you bring to focus.
So that leaves us with a big question. Where do we go from here?
To convey that I'm inspired by the ideas of this summit and the eight town halls proceeding it does not do justice to the hope I feel and the optimism I hold for our future. We've heard about ways to create a more inclusive community, one that recognizes racial justice is a critical component to ensuring diversity. We've heard about revamping Peace Corps policies, about establishing an exchange program with the countries we serve, about evaluating RPCV support, and about measuring our collective global impact. We have heard the ideas of our future. The NPCA staff is small but mighty — and I express my heartfelt appreciation and gratitude for our dedicated, courageous team that raised the bar these past few weeks, working tirelessly to create a space to listen, to learn, and to forge a path for the future.
Yet we cannot go alone. Working together with you, with Peace Corps, and with RPCVs across the nation and around the globe, we must now convert these ideas into actions, develop the strategies and the programs that will enable us to fulfill our vision of a united and vibrant Peace Corps community. So we do not ask you to stay tuned for more information, we invite you to sing the song with us, and we offer several instruments to enable your support.
- First and foremost, engage with us. If you have not already, join NPCA to learn more about the next steps that will develop from these big ideas.
Second, donate. We could not undertake any of the work we do without your generous support. Your financial leadership allows us to develop new initiatives like the Global Reentry Program we heard about today. Your contributions allow us to continue critical engagement for advocacy efforts, expand our support for the affiliate group network, and further the unfinished business of RPCVs and communities around the world. Contribute to the Community Fund Projects, become a Mission Partner, or join our Shriver Leadership Circle. Your support in any amount will help fund the ideas discussed today and ensure they become part of our reality.
Next, connect with the Affiliate Group Network. As past president of Atlanta Area RPCVs, I understand firsthand the challenges affiliate groups face with community outreach. More than 180 affiliate groups are eager to reach you — from regional and country of service groups to workplace affinity groups that support RPCV recruitment and professional growth in the workplace, to the increasing number of cause-driven groups championing issues like environmental action, social justice, and refugee support — that are joining this network. Search the affiliate group directory on the NPCA website. And if you don't find what you're looking for, contact us to learn about starting a new group.
And finally, amplify our voice. We number over 230,000 RPCVs and Peace Corps staff, yet many in our community remain on the fringes. As we work to create a more inclusive environment, we need your help to reach our fellow volunteers, and shape a space that welcomes everyone. We know that we can go further together and we must unite as we never have before to realize our full potential.
On behalf of the entire NPCA team, thank you so much for being here today. Thank you for your commitment and your dedication.
I'll take one note in an immediate call to action. As Glenn noted earlier, we will have a survey to collect your feedback on the summit and the actions we will undertake in the days to come. Please take a moment to share your thoughts with us and inform our continued improvement. We are honored to walk with you on this journey as we connect Peace Corps to the Future. Thank you.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez is Chair of the Board of Directors for National Peace Corps Association. She served as a Volunteer in Costa Rica 2006–08.
- First and foremost, engage with us. If you have not already, join NPCA to learn more about the next steps that will develop from these big ideas.