Crossing Borders: Old goal still a worthy one

06/30/2013 12:00 AM

07/01/2013 5:06 PM

Speaking at San Francisco's Cow Palace days before the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy proposed a "new machinery intended to win the struggle for peace and freedom."

A key element was a volunteer "peace corps." Kennedy was convinced that "our men and women, dedicated to freedom, are able to be missionaries, not only for freedom and peace, but join in a worldwide struggle against poverty and disease and ignorance."

Six weeks later, he created the Peace Corps by executive order. Congress followed with legislation.

In sending off the first volunteers, Kennedy hoped for a Peace Corps of at least 100,000 volunteers a year, 1 million a decade who would live and work in other countries for two years. This, he thought, would establish a critical corps of Americans "with firsthand experience in the problems of this world, and we will for the first time have a large political constituency for an informed public opinion about foreign policy."

The Peace Corps has never come close to 100,000 a year, 1 million a decade – more like 200,000 in 50 years. Yet this small program has been very successful being a face of Americans reaching out to the world.

That success is seen in the lives of countless individuals, such as Dr. Mohamud Said of Kenya, a physician who has made a life of service – for which he received this year's Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award from the National Peace Corps Association for being an outstanding leader whose life was influenced by the Peace Corps. I talked with him Wednesday.

From a remote area in northern Kenya, Said attended a newly established secondary school after Kenya won independence in 1963. There he met two young Peace Corps science teachers.

"We were used to Europeans, the British, but people were scared of them because of colonial rule. But here we get a new type of white people who are different, who are social, go to homes and mix with people."

In an area with no electricity and no telephones, both volunteers opened new worlds. They sparked Said's interest in science, and he went on to medical school. He runs a hospital and pharmacy. "I wanted to help people," he told me. "That's why I studied medicine."

The Peace Corps spirit also had lasting impact. Said began volunteering with the Red Cross, aiding refugees from neighboring countries, eventually becoming president of the Kenya Red Cross. He helped found a network of doctors and lawyers to assist torture victims. He became active in the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, eventually its president.

To help people prevent infections from jigger fleas that burrow into feet, Said has partnered with a shoe company. He is starting a prosthetic and occupational therapy center. He does reconstructive surgery for refugees and others.

"For me this work is natural," he said. "If there is a problem, there I am. I do it from my heart, and I am happy about it. I will continue doing it so long as I have the energy."

In Said's view, the Peace Corps "has done a noble thing in Africa and other Third World countries, going to remote areas and assisting people." But with its small numbers, he believes it is "not being used to its potential."

I joined the Peace Corps in the 20th anniversary year, teaching mathematics. By then, the Peace Corps had dwindled to fewer than 6,000. I gained an understanding of life in a rural African community, saw eyes of children light up at new knowledge and learned a lot about myself and the United States. In my experience, volunteers learn more than they teach.

Given its success, why hasn't the Peace Corps reached 100,000 volunteers a year, 1 million a decade? Harris Wofford, one of the Peace Corps' architects and former U.S. senator, has some thoughts. He describes the history as a "roller-coaster ride."

By 1966, the Peace Corps had 16,000 volunteers and planned to get to 50,000 by 1970. "And then Vietnam closed in. It sucked the resources away and the focus of the country. I attribute a lot of the low points to the inevitability of focus-shifting when you're in a war like Vietnam or the wars we're in now," he concluded.

What would it take to get to 100,000 a year, 1 million a decade?

I asked U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia from 1966 to 1968. The problem, he said, is the replication of previous budgets through the decades. To change that, a president would have to make a budget proposal shifting money from other accounts to double this year's $375 million Peace Corps budget, and double it again each year.

"That then signals to Congress that this is a serious thing," Garamendi said. He is confident Congress would follow suit.

So how about it? In 1961, Kennedy set the goal of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth" by the end of the decade. We did it. Having 100,000 volunteers a year, 1 million a decade, should be the goal for the Peace Corps' second 50 years.


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