Peace Corps: JFK’s greatest legacy
category: Newspaper Articles

Peace Corps: JFK’s greatest legacy

by Emily Fanjoy
Guest Columnist

Since the publication of Deb Saine’s article “Answering a Call” on Jan. 31, the Pharos-Tribune has offered me the opportunity to write an occasional article sharing my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. I am not the first native of Logansport to serve in the Peace Corps, and hopefully not the last, but I think too many people are still unaware of its existence and the work it’s doing. In the coming months I plan to talk about different aspects the job, comparing and contrasting between Guatemala and the United States. But before I delve into any other subjects, I want to clarify what the Peace Corps is.

More Americans seem to remember John F. Kennedy for his death than for his life accomplishments. During his campaign for the presidency in 1960, then-Sen. Kennedy planned a visit to the University of Michigan. The press and students eagerly awaited his arrival for hours, but the senator was delayed. The press, thinking nothing would happen, went to bed, but 10,000 University of Michigan students did not. Kennedy arrived at 2 a.m. greeted by this enormous, energetic crowd, and he was inspired. He boldly challenged these students to serve their country, in the pursuit of peace and friendship, by living and working in developing nations. One of his first actions as president was to formalize the existence of the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961.

The Peace Corps has three main goals:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.

3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

To date, more than 195,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 countries. While the pursuit of “peace and friendship” might sound like a soft job, living in Third World conditions brings challenges often unimaginable to those accustomed to an American lifestyle. To date, 273 volunteers have lost their lives in these conditions. To be a volunteer is to challenge oneself intellectually, emotionally and physically; this is not a soft job.

Although the Peace Corps works in a wide range of international development areas such as agriculture, youth outreach and health, volunteers all use the same approach, “capacity building.” Capacity building is the idea that volunteers will educate and train host country nationals, thereby creating the ability to perform, maintain and duplicate the development process on their own.

My husband and I are health educators teaching home preventive health, basics like the importance of hand washing. By the end of our service, our goal is to leave behind trained Guatemalan health promoters who continue giving educational health talks in their communities after we are gone. In this way, the work doesn’t stop with us; ideally the education continues until it is no longer needed.

From the outset, the method of the Peace Corps has been to train volunteers in the language and customs of the people they serve. In 1961, the first group of volunteers to Ghana landed at the airport in Accra. They formed a chorus on the tarmac in front of dignitaries of state and sang the country’s national anthem in the native language, Twi. We live alongside the people we work for, speaking their language, learning their way of life. This helps us become more effective and sympathetic teachers, shaping our work to address the specifics of their problems using terms and ideas to which they can relate.

The work done by volunteers today is the accumulation of nearly 48 years of experience. In the ’60s and ’70s it was often thought that teaching English in Third World countries would help their development. The problem with this approach was that while children were learning English, they were dying of preventable communicable diseases. We live and learn. Today the programs are tailored to the needs of the specific countries and regions, and are designed and directed by host country nationals. They know their own country better than we do.

In addition to their specialized projects, Peace Corps volunteers are also ambassadors. My husband and I joke that being home actually means we’re at work, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. People always stop by to drop off tortillas or avocados as presents, to ask us health questions, or just to stand at our Dutch door and watch what we do in our home. Our responses to these situations shape local opinions about all Americans.

How much “success” a volunteer achieves in his or her service is a hard thing to measure, as the smallest things we do often make the greatest difference. However, the Peace Corps has been around long enough to see some big returns in their investments. Former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo was awarded a scholarship to attend college in the United States, helped by two Peace Corps volunteers he befriended as a child. The Dominican Republic’s former president, Hipólito Mejía Domínguez, learned English from a Peace Corps volunteer and continues to praise the organization. Returned Peace Corps volunteers further serve their country at home and abroad as senators, ambassadors, doctors, educators and artists. The positive effects of the Peace Corps’ everyday existence are immeasurable.

John F. Kennedy’s life and presidency were short, and his death was dramatic. But I think his greatest legacy was this: The founding of the United States Peace Corps.

Emily Richardson Fanjoy is a 2002 LHS graduate and a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Guatemala. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the Peace Corps.

Published: February 28, 2009 07:49 pm in the Logansport Pharos-Tribune

Posted by: emily