They have served from Tunisia to Togo, Swaziland to Azerbaijan. They have built schools and toilets; taught science and marketing; battled hunger, disease and illiteracy.
Today, about a hundred alumni will gather at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Sacramento to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, President John F. Kennedy's plan to help change America's image worldwide. The event, one of several held around the country and the world, was sponsored by the National Peace Corps Association.
Since 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 nations as teachers, advisers and counselors charged with doing their part to save the world. They have survived some of the harshest conditions Earth can dish out, creating a rare esprit de corps that is the stuff of legend. "Once you're a returned Peace Corps volunteer, you're always a volunteer," said director of communications Allison Price.
More than 1,100 Peace Corps alumni live in the greater Sacramento region.
Shannon Coe, 34
Service: Paraguay, 2004-06, helping Special Olympians and at-risk youth
Now: Disabilities advocate, California Foundation for Independent Living Centers
Stricken with polio at 18 months, Coe has championed the underdog her whole life. She had to fight to get into the Peace Corps. "They weren't going to medically pass me, but I wanted it so badly I hired a lawyer," she said. "They were afraid of disability."
So is much of the world: When her family fled Vietnam by boat, Coe said, her grandfather wanted to leave her behind. "People with disabilities were often left in orphanages or killed because they're not valued as humans," she said.
When Coe arrived in Sacramento she was kept at home and had no friends until she got her first wheelchair at age 5. "I was liberated," said Coe, who went on to graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, and took the fight for disability rights to the Third World.
The Peace Corps sent her to Paraguay, where she and others with disabilities took photos of buildings, buses and roads that weren't wheelchair accessible and posted them in Asunción, the capital. A TV crew chronicled their crusade.
"I was teaching at this brand new special ed school and it had stairs, no ramps," said Coe, whose students carried her up the stairs.
She helped disabled people get jobs and lobbied the government for changes. "I hope they see disabled people in a more positive way," she said.
"Before I used to think if you give people resources they'll get out of poverty quickly." Now, said Coe, she knows corruption and culture can be obstacles, as well.
"When I came back from the Peace Corps I become more active, and did a lot more fundraising," said Coe, who has helped Wheels of the World donate 1,000 wheelchairs to people in Cameroon, Cuba and India.
David Blicker, 72
Service: Kenya, 1999-2002, small business coach
Now: Executive director, Opening Doors, helping refugees and immigrants achieve self-sufficiency
Blicker wanted to join the Peace Corps the moment President Kennedy created it, but says his dad told him that he couldn't turn down his acceptance to UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.
So he clerked for a civil rights lawyer in Alabama, then practiced law in Sacramento for 34 years. "I got tired of litigation there were just too many young lawyers more interested in saying, 'I can kick your ass in court,' rather than solving the problem."
Inspired by a judge who had served in Nigeria, Blicker closed his practice, sold his Land Park home, gave away his 70 Bonsai plants and headed to Machakos, Kenya. "It was suffering from drought, and I had minimal water and electricity."
He worked with groups of men who created wood and soapstone carvings and groups of women making colorful bags, baskets and carvings.
"Most of these women were preliterate and spent the day getting water, collecting firewood, tending kids and making baskets. Per capita income was 75 cents a day," he said.
By cutting out the middleman and selling directly to buyers in the Netherlands, they could make at least $2 a day. One mother-daughter team developed a $35,000 business in six months.
Blicker then raised more than $16,000 to train electrical engineers to install solar energy systems.
He said he also taught critical thinking and visited orphanages for babies born with the AIDS virus. "It was an enormous problem; over 25 percent of the population had it. Condoms were readily available, but not readily used."
He returned to Sacramento and put his knowledge to work helping refugees. He was hired at Opening Doors by Deborah DeBondt, another Peace Corps alum.
Howard Koons, 66
Service: Malaysia, 1967-69; science teacher
Now: Photographer and retired builder
Koons' first task when he got to Gemas in West Malaysia was to build the first jamban (flush toilet). "By the time I left there were eight jambans." He also taught high school biology to 140 kids. "I was the only teacher with a bachelor's degree."
The real benefit to serving in the Peace Corps in 1968, he said, "when we had 500,000 young people running around in the jungles of Vietnam shooting people, was that several thousand people learned what a simple American boy was like not all Americans are CIA agents."
Koons "fell in love many times," and immersed himself in Asian culture, living with Malays, Chinese and Indians.
"Whatever your economic standing, everybody cherishes the same thing, everyone wants their family to be healthy and progress from there," he said. "They didn't have piped water, no elecricity, no TVs and radios, but they were happy. The typical meal was rice, but nobody was starving."
Koons, who taught school in Meadow Vista and Weimar from 1971 to 1974, now hosts an annual goat roast for Peace Corps veterans.
"I've never met a more adventurous, exciting group of people," he said. "If Americans would get off their butts and see how other people in the world live, we'd be a far more amiable country."
Brooke Devlin, 22
Service: Guatemala, 2011, teaching health and nutrition
Devlin, who majored in psychology at the University of California, Davis, arrived in Guatemala in January to teach nutrition and health at 36 remote schools.
"Most drop out in the fourth grade," she blogged in February. "Villages have a high rate of illiteracy and there are no bathrooms, no running water and no electricity. Life is harsh."
The civil war that raged through the 1990s helped create a culture of fear and violence. But, she added, "the people here are amazing, so resilient after such a violent past."
Devlin taught speakers of K'iche and Mam, indigenous dialects. She was stationed in Cabricán, Quetzaltenango "a cold, mountainous, isolated place." Her first day, she attended the funeral of a 15-year-old boy who had died of throat cancer.
She resolved to help build water projects and toilets for rural schools. But as street violence escalated, Devlin said, she didn't feel safe traveling alone to the villages.
Last week, she was evacuated home to Northern California for 45 days for medical reasons.
"My stress level was very high," she said. "Volunteers have been threatened at gunpoint and with machetes. Stuff happens on the buses every day there was a bus massacre one town over."
Devlin met with a psychiatrist in Guatemala City who would go straight from his office to his car and then straight home.
"I love interacting with the people," she said. "They need my help badly, but at what cost?"
Each year, about 10 percent of volunteers depart the Peace Corps early for personal or medical reasons. Devlin is evaluating her options.
"I'm still an active volunteer," she said. "They want me to figure out if it's healthy for me to go back, or if it will be too much."