Peace Corps basks in the spotlight

Peace Corps basks in the spotlight

Bush push for volunteerism has boosted interest in mission
By Petra Cahill NBC NEWS

April 18 - The Peace Corps is experiencing a huge surge in interest in the wake of Sept. 11, particularly since President Bush’s call to service in his State of the Union address. The organization itself says its mission hasn’t changed since its founding in 1961, but its prominence has soared since the attack on America.

IN HIS STATE of the Union address in January, Bush seized on the idea of using the renewed sense of American patriotism to press for an expansion of the Peace Corps.

The president called for a doubling of the number of corps volunteers throughout the world, but especially in the Islamic world.

Since then, the organization says the number of requests for applications has increased by 77 percent.

In addition, in the months since the State of the Union address there were 329,923 unique visitors to the Peace Corps Web site, an 85 percent surge over the same period a year ago.

Bush’s emphasis on expanding Peace Corps service to more countries in the Islamic world has provoked concern about whether the administration is attempting to alter the mission of the organization.

The answer is no, says the organization’s spokeswoman, Ellen Field, who notes that volunteerism in the Islamic world has always been an integral part of the organization’s work.

The mission remains “to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans,” she says.

There are Peace Corps volunteers currently serving in Jordan, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Senegal, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Gambia.

In addition, prior to Sept. 11, there were volunteers serving in the Kyrgyz Republic, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Bangladesh; service in those countries has been suspended because of the war in Afghanistan, but the Peace Corps hopes to return as soon as possible.

At the swearing-in ceremony for Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez on Feb. 15, Bush reiterated his goal of spreading the organization’s activism to the Islamic world. “I look forward to working with the members of Congress to strengthen the Peace Corps, to reassert its independence and to create new opportunities in Muslim nations for us to spread the good story about the values, the universal values, we hold so dear.”

The Peace Corps says the president isn’t trying to introduce a religious element to its duties, but is “spreading the good word” of American culture.

Field said the real challenge for volunteers is to “bring back what they’ve learned about why these people hate us, why they treat women the way that they do, and other elements of their culture to America.”

Created in 1961 by President Kennedy, the Peace Corps now has 7,000 volunteers serving in 70 countries. They are U.S. citizens ranging in age from 22 to 82, although the median age is 25.

The Peace Corps budget for the 2002 fiscal year is $275 million. Volunteers commit to two years of service in a given country, working on projects ranging from small-business initiatives to helping communities ensure sources of potable water and improve sanitation, to AIDS education.

Volunteers live in both urban and rural environments; about a third live in communities without electricity and running water.

Given the surge in interest, the Peace Corps has responded by trying to shorten the time it takes for a person who has completed an application to depart for their country of service.

It has a lengthy application process that includes a detailed written application, an essay, numerous recommendations and a medical exam.

In the past it could take up to 18 months before a candidate could depart for service overseas; the aim is to shorten that wait to a maximum of four months.

In his State of the Union address, Bush said there was no plan to impose American culture on other nations. “But America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity. ”America will take the side of brave men and women who advocate these values around the world, including the Islamic world.”

Many former volunteers agree that in light of the events of Sept. 11, the Peace Corps’ mission is an important way to spread tolerance at home.

Matt Bockner returned from Ivory Coast, where about a third of the people are Muslims, in 2000 after serving two years with the Peace Corps.

He noted that Bush “wants to spread understanding of what it is to be an American. … This is the point of the good story.” … Peace Corps Volunteers teach people the values, interests and beliefs of America, while at the same time, volunteers learn the same from their hosts.

“When the volunteer leaves, one ‘good story’ goes back to the U.S. and hopefully one stays there.”

NBC’s Petra Cahill, who served for two years with the Peace Corps in Ivory Coast, is a news assignment editor in Secaucus, N.J.