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Locals among thousands in Washington to mark Peace Corps' 50th anniversary

Monday, September 26, 2011 - 12:01 am

Thousands of people – many wearing woven hats, batik shirts, silk saris, striped serapes and other colorful attire from around the world – gathered in Washington, D.C., on Sunday for a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and a parade of flags across Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial. It was the culmination of a weekend of festivities celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United States Peace Corps.

My husband, David, and I served as teachers in the southern African country of Botswana from 1986 to 1988. Along with our teenage daughter and Korean exchange student, we traveled to Washington to enjoy events, including a reception at the Botswana embassy, where we had fun speaking Setswana, meeting the ambassador, and eating “fatcakes” (fried dough) and seswaa (boiled goat meat, a delicacy in Botswana).

On a presidential campaign stop at the University of Michigan on Oct. 14, 1960, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy made an impromptu challenge to students to dedicate two years to help people in developing countries. The idea caught on quickly among young Americans, and just two months after Kennedy was sworn in as president, an executive order marked the program's official start in March 1961.

Although the idea was Kennedy's, his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, made it reality and became the agency's first director. Since then, about 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries – as teachers, small-business developers, health workers and agriculture advisers – and their experiences continue to shape their lives and strengthen their communities.

The Arlington ceremony also honored the lives of 280 volunteers who died while serving their country, with eulogies from family members of two of the victims; stirring music from students at Duke Ellington School of the Arts; and a message from Liberian vice president Joseph Boakai, who was influenced by a Peace Corps volunteer at a young age.

The keynote speech was by former Sen. Christopher Dodd, who served in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, then represented Connecticut in the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms and the Senate for five terms. He said that in an increasingly high-tech and globally connected world, many people ask, “Can Peace Corps still be effective or is it even necessary?”

Dodd said he believes the agency must adapt to keep pace with the ever-changing world, focusing particularly on urban challenges and public health issues. “Now more than ever we're at the point where Peace Corps is needed.” He encouraged older Americans to heed the call to service, saying, “This incredible Peace Corps experience need not be reserved for the young.”

The current Peace Corps director, Aaron Williams, asked returned volunteers to remember the agency's “third goal,” which is sharing their understanding of the world with other Americans. He said the annual budget of Peace Corps is the equivalent of “five hours of one day in Iraq,” and urged volunteers to make their voices heard to their representatives in Congress when it's time for funding decisions.

All during the weekend, conversations sparked easily among returned volunteers, as we spotted each other and our various logo T-shirts on the Metro and in hotel lobbies. As thousands of us hiked to Memorial Amphitheater for Sunday's Arlington ceremony, I talked to a man wearing a Lesotho T-shirt and distinctive conical hat. When we finally got around to asking where the other lived, we found out we were both from Defiance, Ohio.

There are about 30 returned Peace Corps volunteers in northeast Indiana, including several who made the trip to Washington to reunite with fellow volunteers and take part in other anniversary events.

Terry Dougherty, a senior programmer analyst at IPFW, served 1973-74 in Afghanistan. He and his wife, Margie, joined with 65 returned volunteers at an Afghan restaurant called Bamian to relive memories and gathered with a group of about 135 at the Afghanistan embassy. On Saturday they went to a bazaar and a panel discussion with the first three Peace Corps Afghanistan directors.

In Fort Wayne, Dougherty is president of Friends of Afghanistan; works with School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), which brings students to the U.S. to study in high school and college; and also is involved with the Indiana Center for Mideast Peace.

Dougherty said his Peace Corps experience continues to influence his work and volunteerism through ”a desire to understand international circumstances and to help educate and influence Americans to engage in peaceful solutions to world problems.”

Katy Silliman, regional alignment coordinator of Vision 2020 at Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, served 1999-2001 in Togo, where she worked in community health, AIDS prevention and guinea worm eradication. As part of the Washington festivities, she attended a party at the Togolese embassy and a dinner at American University sponsored by Friends of Togo, at which Togolese women served native dishes.

Silliman, who is also involved in Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana, said her Peace Corps service “guides me every day in the work I do now. It gives me the ability to cross cultural barriers and build relationships with people from different cultures.

“Everyone is motivated by something different. To move people to do something in our region, you have to know what motivates them. In the Peace Corps, I learned the importance of being genuinely interested in people's lives.”