Orrin Luc posted an articlePeace Corps Response: An anniversary. A pandemic. A historic moment for this program launched a quarter century ago.Short-term, high-impact. Now marking 25 years since its founding. see more
Short-term, high-impact. Now marking 25 years since its founding.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Photo by Christian Farnsworth
A quarter century ago, at a midsummer White House Rose Garden ceremony attended by President Bill Clinton and Sargent Shriver, first director of the Peace Corps, a new type of Peace Corps service was announced to the world: Crisis Corps. Short-term, high-impact, it was, as then-Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan explained, “an effort to harness the enormous experience, skills, motivation, and talents that the Peace Corps, including its returned Volunteer ranks, possesses, and bring them to bear in an organized fashion during such crisis situations.”
At the outset, all Crisis Corps Volunteers were required to have already served in the Peace Corps. In fact, the program traces much of its origins to grassroots work by returned Volunteers. The National Peace Corps Association Emergency Response Network, activated to help in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, provided powerful inspiration.
IN ITS FIRST YEARS, Crisis Corps enlisted hundreds of Volunteers to serve in places from Bosnia to Guinea to El Salvador. Volunteers worked with communities recovering from conflicts, hurricanes, earthquakes, and more. Following the devastating tsunami that hit Thailand and Sri Lanka, among other countries, in 2004, the largest cohort ever of Crisis Corps Volunteers deployed there. Months later, hundreds more began serving Gulf Coast communities battered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — the first time Volunteers served in the United States.
Flooding in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Photo courtesy Wikimedia
By 2007 the broadening nature of assignments led the agency to rename the program Peace Corps Response. Assignments last three months to one year, shorter than a standard 27-month term of Peace Corps service. That makes them more feasible for working professionals, who have to take a leave of absence. And, since 2012, Response Volunteers have included individuals who haven’t previously served in the Peace Corps.
Mothers and daughters pick up gifts of cooking oil as an incentive for school attendance, part of a World Food Programme effort in Guinea documented by Christian Farnsworth, who served as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer.
It’s interesting to note that in 2020 the Commission on Military, National, and Public Service issued a report that called for exploring virtual service assignments for Peace Corps Response, to further open up opportunities for people able and willing to serve but not, perhaps, able to travel to other countries. Indeed, after the evacuation of all Peace Corps Volunteers in March 2020, the Peace Corps agency launched the Virtual Service Pilot — which connected evacuated Volunteers and Response Volunteers with organizations and communities in countries where they had been serving.
In May 2021, more than 150 Peace Corps Response Volunteers deployed domestically, as part of a partnership with FEMA. “By sending specialized volunteers to targeted assignments, we are helping to advance Peace Corps’ mission of world peace and friendship,” Peace Corps Response Director Sarah Dietch noted. Response Volunteers began serving with community vaccination centers to reach underserved communities — an effort that seems more important with each passing day, as another wave of COVID-19 takes a terrible toll.
Grandmother in a Ukrainian village, photographed by Michael Andrews as part of the Baba Yelka project.
In the 25 years since Peace Corps Response began, more than 3,800 Volunteers have served in over 80 countries — and twice in the United States. As we go to press, Response is recruiting for 136 openings, with Volunteers departing “no earlier than late 2021” for Belize and Guyana, undertaking assignments that include literacy specialist, adolescent health specialist, and epidemiology specialist. They’re recruiting for positions departing “no earlier than early 2022” for more than 20 countries, from Mexico to Malawi, Uganda to Ukraine, Georgia to Guatemala, Jamaica to South Africa.
Kudu released into Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in Malawi, where Betsy Holtz worked as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer
Response Volunteers were at the vanguard as Peace Corps returned to countries such as Liberia. Civil war forced the program there to close in 1990. In 2007, when Response Volunteers arrived to serve, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, president of Liberia, personally attended the swearing-in ceremony.
In the pages that follow, we bring you a brief history of the program. Along with milestones, take note of the stories of lives and communities that have been shaped by the experience. It’s no coincidence that there’s a recurring theme of building together, whether that’s infrastructure or shared knowledge, and undergirding it all, that commitment to nurturing peace and friendship.
Three girls in Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, eastern Panamá; Eli Wittum documented environmental work in the country, and when he visited this region these three were delighted to pose for a photo.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
Steven Saum posted an articleA few Returned Peace Corps Volunteers tried to stem the tide of suffering. see more
A catastrophic humanitarian crisis in 1994 led to the death of millions of Rwandans. A few Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who tried to stem the tide of suffering proved a powerful catalyst for Crisis Corps, a global endeavor launched by the Peace Corps agency two years later.
DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE: An excerpt from a story in the Winter 2013 edition of WorldView magazine.
By David Arnold
Carol Pott and John Berry were married shortly before John started a U.S. Agency for International Development small enterprise development project in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a small, poor, heavily populated but relatively peaceful Central African country that John’s boss told Carol was “Africa for beginners.”
Seven months later, in April 1994, when John left for a conference in a neighboring city, the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over Kigali.
The crash ignited events that gave Rwanda’s reputation new meaning for Carol, and the world. “I heard the plane crash while I was eating dinner with my neighbor,” Carol recalls. “It shook the ground. Soon after, mortars began flying over the house.”
“I heard the plane crash while I was eating dinner with my neighbor. It shook the ground. Soon after, mortars began flying over the house.”
A mortar shell struck the back of Carol’s house. She hid some neighbors in her ceiling. Later that night, militia broke into the neighbors’ house and hacked to death the guard and gardener. “The militias were killing children in the streets.”
When John heard about the violence he was directing a conference in a southern Rwanda convent. He quickly paid final wages to some staff, then death benefits to the widows of others who were early casualties. He asked two nuns at the convent, Sister Gertrude Mukangano and Sister Maria Kisito Mukabutera, to look out for the remaining staff and left.
Traumatized by their experience, Carol and John were evacuated from Rwanda and saw the full scope of what they had escaped as they watched on U.S. television some of the more than 10,000 Rwandan bodies floating down the Kagera River, washing ashore in Uganda or onto the islands of Lake Victoria. The total of Rwandan dead is still not known, and is believed to be 500,000 to a million.
Planning began in a San Rafael bar
“We were back in San Rafael, California, watching the genocide on TV, feeling depressed,” says John, when they also saw a local news reporter interview Steven Smith, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer in Zaire, a neighboring Central African country where many of Rwanda’s refugees had fled. Smith was recruiting Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to help in Rwanda, so John — a Niger RPCV — called.
“We wanted to return to Rwanda and do something that was positive,” Carol says. Carol had not served in Peace Corps but she was deeply moved by her time in Rwanda conducting economic surveys and volunteering for a Kigali human rights group.
Smith called then-President of the National Peace Corps Association Chic Dambach and they set in motion grassroots initiatives that became known as the RPCV Rwanda Project, a project that almost 20 years later many experts in post-conflict peace-building believe had a profound impact on post-conflict Rwanda and continues to constructively influence other crises.
Photographed a decade after the genocide at the Sovu convent in Southern Rwanda, a mass grave memorial stands for the hundreds of genocide victims who were killed at the convent, including half of John Berry’s project staff. Berry raised funding for the memorial, and the sisters of the convent organized its construction. A rough translation: “To the victims from the village of Sovu who were killed in the genocide in April 1994. May God bless their eternal rest.“ Photo by John Berry
What they did in Rwanda
Chic Dambach found funding through USAID for Smith to build the NPCA’s Emergency Response Network (ERN), a pre-internet telephone tree that gathered the names, contacts, and resumes of hundreds of RPCVs willing to turn their cross-cultural experiences, language, and skill sets to the Rwanda crisis. The ERN became a popular recruiting source for NGOs and U.N. agencies for years to come.
Mark Gearan, who was then director of the Peace Corps, understood the long-term implications of ERN and asked permission to borrow the concept when he created the federal agency’s own Crisis Corps, later renamed Peace Corps Response.
Carol flew to Washington to work in the NPCA office on a training curriculum for the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights and U.N. human rights field monitors. Many were fresh law school graduates and most had no knowledge of the country, the issues, or Rwanda’s indigenous languages, yet they were supposed to find Rwandans needing protection and identify evidence such as mass graves to preserve for later prosecutions.
Carol sifted through Peace Corps training manuals and Where There Is No Doctor, and interviewed such experts as a forensic anthropologist, the head of Physicians for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch specialists on Somalia, and the director of the Congressional Hunger Center to write the curriculum she and John could provide for the first Geneva training. Later, Steve and Carol returned to Rwanda to evaluate the work of the monitors.
READ MORE: The rest of David Arnold’s story in the Winter 2013 edition, available on the WorldView app.
David Arnold was editor of WorldView magazine in 2013 and, for his decades at the helm of this magazine, now holds the title of editor emeritus.
Orrin Luc posted an articleThe second time in history that Peace Corps Volunteers have been deployed in the United States. see more
Beginnings. Good sense. And the second time in history that Peace Corps Volunteers have been deployed in the United States.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Photo from 1994: A Rwandan refugee camp in eastern Zaire. Photo courtesy CDC
Here’s an instructive but heart-wrenching place to start, if we want to tell the big story at the center of this edition of WorldView. It’s one of crisis and response: April 1994. A plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi is shot down over Kigali. The assassination ignites events that lead to horrific genocide in Rwanda. Over 100 days, 800,000 people are killed. More than 2 million flee to neighboring countries as refugees; another 1.5 million are internally displaced.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer John Berry and his then-wife, Carol, were in Rwanda at the time. Carol was working with a human rights group; John was directing training efforts for micro-enterprise development. They were evacuated as the nightmare began to unfold.
Back in California, John and Carol were watching news reports on the genocide when they saw a local reporter interview another returned Volunteer, Steven Smith, who was in Zaire — where many Rwandan refugees had fled. Smith was recruiting returned Volunteers to help Rwanda. John called him. And Smith reached out to National Peace Corps Association President Chic Dambach. As WorldView editor emeritus David Arnold wrote in this magazine, “They set in motion grassroots initiatives that became known as the RPCV Rwanda Project.” They also found funding to build NPCA’s Emergency Response Network — “names, contacts, and résumés of hundreds of RPCVs willing to turn their cross-cultural experiences, language, and skill sets to the Rwanda crisis.”
And they brought together returned Volunteers to work with refugees on the ground.
NOT LONG AFTER, in 1995, Mark Gearan was sworn in as Peace Corps director. He took a page from the Emergency Response Network playbook and launched Crisis Corps, a new Peace Corps program to harness the skills and cross-cultural experience and care returned Volunteers might bring to crisis situations. The program was formally inaugurated in June 1996 at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. Among those present for the occasion: Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, and his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, as well as longtime Peace Corps champion Senator Harris Wofford.
“The real gift of the Peace Corps is the gift of the human heart, pulsing with the spirit of civic responsibility that is the core of America’s character. It is forever an antidote to cynicism, a living challenge to intolerance, an enduring promise that the future can be better and that people can live richer lives if we have the faith and strength and compassion and good sense to work together.”
At that ceremony, President Bill Clinton observed a truth we know well. “The dedicated service of Peace Corps Volunteers does not end when their two-year tour is over,” he said. “So let us always remember that the truest measure of the Peace Corps’ greatness has been more than its impact on development. The real gift of the Peace Corps is the gift of the human heart, pulsing with the spirit of civic responsibility that is the core of America’s character. It is forever an antidote to cynicism, a living challenge to intolerance, an enduring promise that the future can be better and that people can live richer lives if we have the faith and strength and compassion and good sense to work together.”
AND WHAT OF THAT — compassion and good sense and working together? In 2021, for the second time in history, Peace Corps Response Volunteers have been deployed domestically. The first time was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When Response Volunteers were recruited this past spring, there were more people offering to serve than there were slots available. It seemed that the pandemic was winding down. Just a few months back — but a long time ago. More recently, when one group of Response Volunteers was working with vaccination outreach efforts in underserved communities in Oregon, the sense of this is about over couldn’t have been further from reality. As a reporter for NBC News who had spent time with the Volunteers observed, ICUs in the state were virtually at capacity.
Peace Corps Response Volunteer Judith Jones talks with NBC News reporter Maura Barrett. Jones was evacuated from Belize in March 2020 and in 2021 has been part of the second domestic deployment of Peace Corps Volunteers.
So, in service around the country amid this pandemic, we find one answer to another question we ask in this edition: What does it mean to serve now? A question that bears asking as Peace Corps Response marks its 25-year anniversary and the Peace Corps celebrates 60 years. And a question that, for this edition, we put to Mark Gearan in his recent capacity as one of the leaders for the congressionally mandated National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Over several years, that bipartisan commission endeavored, for the first time in the nation’s history, to gain a comprehensive view of what it means to serve — and what the needs and as of yet untapped opportunities are. They sought to answer, in concrete terms: How can we get to 1 million Americans serving every year?
Sixty years ago, the Peace Corps took wing fueled by JFK’s exhortation “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” In helping to define and inspire service for a new generation, and in reaching a scale this country has never seen, the ideas and the ideals that have shaped Peace Corps have something to bring to the table. Read on.
DIGITAL EXCLUSIVE: David Arnold’s 2013 story on Rwanda and the NPCA Emergency Response Network.
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.
Steven Saum posted an articleWhy are you going to the U.S.? colleagues asked. It’s worse there. see more
Rwanda | Ana Santos
Home: Atlanta, Georgia
Ana Santos had been serving as a Volunteer teaching English since September 2018. After hearing about the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Rwanda, Santos started packing that Sunday, before getting the official evacuation order on Monday. And she began the emotionally taxing and logistically challenging process of saying goodbye.
The government had banned large gatherings and had closed schools. Colleagues had returned to family homes; she couldn’t find many of her students. “I had to go to each of my teachers’ homes individually to greet them and tell them the news. They were as shocked and as upset as I was.”
“Peace Corps is one of the best ideas the United States has ever had.”
Santos coordinated with other nearby Volunteers to hire a bus for the long journey to the capital, Kigali. There they learned the Rwandan government would close the airport in 48 hours. Peace Corps arranged for a charter flight out.
“I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to serve and do my part to make the world a better place,” Santos says. “I was excited by the opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture, to work face-to-face with people who were change-makers in their community.” She had to leave, but she holds to this: “Peace Corps is one of the best ideas the United States has ever had.”
Rwanda | Diana Bender-Bier
Home: Washington, D.C. area
Nishimye kubamenya is how you say “Nice to meet you” in Kinyarwanda, the language Diana Bender-Bier began learning in September 2019. She worked in the Southern Province, teaching English to 4th and 5th graders, training teachers, leading an English club. She lived in a larger market town and walked 40 minutes each day to a smaller village and the school where she taught. Her litany of plans: in April, for grades 5 to 12, a full day of classes with another Volunteer and nearby doctor about safe sex, teen pregnancy, risks of HIV/AIDS. In May, a carnival to educate about malaria. In June, a speaking competition for students. Plans to apply for a grant for science lab materials and playground resources. Fundraising for more desks, since in classes of 70 to 100 kids, many had to sit on the floor.
She says she left her heart there. There’s a moment when we’re talking about her community and she says, “Religion is very big here.” She means there, only she’s not thinking of herself in the Washington, D.C. area but still in Rwanda.
“Most of my colleagues were very confused,” she says. “‘Why are you going there?’ they asked. ‘It’s worse there.’” And it was.
She got the email that she was being evacuated and had a couple days to say goodbye. Colleagues told her, Oh, she’s not coming back. “I kept saying, ‘No, I’m coming back. I’m coming back. It’s just temporary.’ Though I don’t know how long that is.”
There was something eerie about evacuating Rwanda, she says — an echo of 25 years before, on the eve of civil war, when Peace Corps and others left and the genocide began. One of her colleagues lost both parents. “I felt connected to the genocide in a different way, given my Jewish heritage,” Bender-Bier says. As for her departure for the States, “Most of my colleagues were very confused,” she says. “‘Why are you going there?’ they asked. ‘It’s worse there.’” And it was.
In Rockville, Maryland, during quarantine she was at her mother’s house while her mother stayed in Florida. With rooms to spare, Bender-Bier provided a home for other evacuated Volunteers.
—Steven Boyd Saum
Rwanda | Levi Rokey
Home: Washington, D.C. area
Baggage of evacuation: Levi Rokey left his community in Rwanda for a hotel room in Washington, D.C. Now he’s working on contact tracing to help his community at home.
Thanks for reading. And here’s how you can support the work we’re doing to help evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers.