Peace Corps: obvious asset Agency still fosters dream of changing world through peaceful service

March 01, 1998|By Colman McCarthy

ON TUESDAY, thousands of former Peace Corps volunteers will go into the nation's classrooms to share their dream of changing the world through service rather than economic or military power.

The Peace Corps was formed in 1961, and since then some 150,000 of its members, who can be aptly described as altruists and idealists, have served in 132 near and far-flung nations.

The Peace Corps Act of 1961 contains a requirement that former members, on returning home, create a "better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people." On Tuesday, they will bring the world home to America's classrooms on "World Wise Schools Day," the day set aside to spread the good word. The classroom is the seedbed of future volunteers, and the veterans of foreign peacemaking will tell their personal tales and the story of a federal agency that's as modest about its achievements as those achievements are unique.

Sargent Shriver, the agency's first director (1961-1966), described its early days as "the years of courage and generosity." Under eight presidents and 13 other directors, the Peace Corps has been free of waste, fraud and scandal. In such countries as Mauritius, Comoros, Montserrat, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Benin, Moldova, the Kyrgyz Republic and other lands unknown to many U.S. citizens, the 6,500 current volunteers are as politically, racially and religiously diverse as the U.S. population.

Last month, President Clinton, recognizing an obvious asset, proposed a 21 percent increase in the agency's budget. An increase of $48 million to a $270 million budget for 1999 would lead to a doubling of the volunteers now abroad.

Lest it be thought this new money represents splurging, one reality needs to be remembered: Congress gives the Department of Defense $700 million a day, more than three times what it allots the Peace Corps in a year.

In the interests of disclosure, I confess to having a few ties to the Peace Corps. During the past 15 years, while I have taught courses on nonviolence to high school, college and law school students, no one leaves my class without hearing about Shriver, or how to apply to the Peace Corps, or the immense inner rewards of two or three years of service, or my stories of former students who joined the Peace Corps and became better people - more compassionate, more spiritual, more politically astute - than they imagined possible.

I have taken my classes on field trips to the Peace Corps headquarters (1990 K St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20278) to talk with staff and to walk the halls and poke into the offices of the East Africa desk, or the Eastern Europe or Central America desk. In the corridors of peace power, the artwork on the walls is a gallery of global culture. Of the dozens of federal agencies I've visited, none approaches the artistic richness and sprightliness of the Peace Corps - or the personal friendliness of the women and men toiling there. Most are former volunteers. Wander into an office and ask only "Where'd you serve?" and you'll be treated to a feast of stories and recollections.

On a recent field trip to the headquarters, my students and I were treated to a talk by Teddy Eisenman, who worked in the World Wise School office. This was a moment of personal pride for me. Teddy was in one of my University of Maryland, College Park classes in 1989. Everything I recalled about his reflectiveness and open-mindedness as an undergraduate was

on full display as he spoke of his two years of Peace Corps service as a teacher in Sokone, Senegal: "I now better understand a part of the world usually portrayed as in a crisis, because most of what we hear about Africa are stories of famine, strife and suffering. This is a narrow view. Sure, Senegal and Africa may be poor, financially speaking, but they are incredibly rich in other, possibly more significant ways. I consider myself very fortunate to have experienced this - the family unity, the generous hospitality and the well established sense of community."

Taking advantage of the easygoing atmosphere of the Peace Corps headquarters, I took one group of students to the office of Mark Gearan, who was appointed director in August 1995 with a unanimous Senate confirmation vote. For me, this is another occasion of pride. Mark Gearan was one of my students in 1989 at the Georgetown University Law Center. That was a rough class. A couple of brainy orators with too much zeal for adversarial verbal combat tended to dominate class discussions. Until, that is, Mark Gearan spoke: calmly, rationally and in the spirit of Gandhi, who sought to bring opponents to their senses, not to their knees.

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