Left Justified: 50 years of the Peace Corps

Stanley Campbell

By Stanley Campbell

If you think you’ve seen this before, you are correct. I helped celebrate Rockford-area Peace Corps “returnees” (volunteers who returned from overseas Peace Corps programs) last March. Well, there’s a big celebration in Washington, D.C., at the end of this month, so why not do another local affair?

About 50 Peace Corps-returned volunteers are living in the Rockford area. Most are involved in the helping services. The returned volunteers served in 15 countries of Asia, Africa, Europe, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. All bring their experiences and enrich the community.

Some of the returnees meet regularly at JustGoods, the fair-trade store at 201 Seventh St. (my office is in the basement). And, by the way, there is a sale going on at the store.

Anyway … four Peace Corps returnees will tell their stories beginning at 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 22, hosted at the Burpee Student Center, Rockford College, 5050 E. State St. The program is free and open to the public.

Peace Corps members, returnees (and family members) will be invited to introduce themselves, tell where they served and relate what they are doing today. Four returnees will make longer presentations, with pictures. We’ll also hear about Rockfordians who are presently serving overseas.

For more information, please contact Loren Floto at lrfloto@frontier.com or (815) 624-7622. Mr. Floto served with the Peace Corps in Santo Domingo and Chile from 1966 to 1968. He hosts the monthly get-togethers at JustGoods, and is one of the store’s many volunteers.

Last time we did this, attendees came from Rockford, Rockton, Pecatonica, Freeport, Lena, Shannon, DeKalb and Williams Bay, Wis., and served their individual two- to three-year terms anytime between 1963 and 2007.

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps to encourage young Americans to help the world. What really happened: he casually said that college students should be interested in volunteering overseas, and their response was so positive that he had his staff work up a proposal (they told Kennedy to rescind the suggestion).

JFK gave the idea to one of his sisters’ husbands to put him to work. Luckily, Sargent Shriver was a workaholic and a liberal do-gooder. “Sarge” quickly got the program off the ground, sending hundreds, then thousands of youngsters off to foreign lands. Rich Muniz will make a presentation; his daughter currently serves in Rwanda.

Connie Wenger, at age 60, was willing to enlist in the Peace Corps and go off to the Republic of Georgia. I’ll have an Internet update from her (she’s on Facebook).

The following was lifted from Wikipedia, off the Internet:

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks alerted the nation to growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East, President George W. Bush pledged to double the size of the organization within five years as a part of the War on Terrorism. For the 2004 fiscal year, Congress passed a budget increase at $325 million, $30 million above that of 2003, but $30 million below the president’s request. President Bush once threatened to cut the Peace Corps to help pay for his Iraq War.

As part of an economic stimulus package in 2008, President Barack Obama proposed to double the size of the Peace Corps. However, as of 2010, the amount requested was insufficient to reach this goal by 2011. Congress raised the 2010 appropriation from the $373 million requested by the president to $400 million, and proposed bills would raise this further for 2011 and 2012.

According to former director Gaddi Vasquez, the Peace Corps is trying to recruit more diverse volunteers of different ages and make it look “more like America.” A Harvard International Review article from 2007 proposes to expand the Peace Corps, revisit its mission and equip it with new technology. In 1961, only 1 percent of volunteers were older than 50, compared with 5 percent today. Ethnic minorities currently comprise 19 percent of volunteers.

We hope to honor those who served the ideals of peace and freedom, and well represented those American ideals to the world. We also hope to encourage others to consider the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and any volunteer program as worthwhile.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the Sept. 14-20, 2011, issue

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