Friday, April 18, 2014

Peace Corps recruits locally

BY TERRY SCHMIDA Citizen Staff
"Who needs the Peace Corps?" Frank Zappa once sang mockingly in the late 1960s.
But the truth is, some 65 nations in Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific islands currently invite trained volunteers from this federal agency to venture to their countries, and assist them in the development of their infrastructure and societies.
More than 139 countries have taken part in the program since its founding.
Thursday afternoon, a representative of the Peace Corps was in town to recruit volunteers and answer their many questions at the Key West Library. A dozen or so Monroe County residents attended the session, which was conducted by Steve Hunsicker, whose association with the agency began as a business training volunteer in the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga nearly a decade ago.
The Peace Corps was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, but far from being a relic of that idealistic, optimistic decade, it has bred a living legacy and continues to inspire American citizens to come forth and demonstrate what its founding Director R. Sargent Shriver once called "the best virtues in our society."
In fact, as Hunsicker related during his talk, "longtime Key Largo resident and one-time Peace Corps volunteer Sharon Alvarado was summoned to the White House last year to meet both President Obama and the visiting president of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma."
The meeting with Alvarado was requested by Koroma, who recalled the galvanizing effect her volunteer education work in his country from 1964 to '66 had on him as a young child. The two had not seen each other in more than half a century, but Koroma wished to thank Alvarado for her efforts on behalf of his family and schoolmates, Hunsicker said.
Over the years, more than 215,000 Americans have taken part in the program. It's goals are promoting world peace and friendship by helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; helping to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; helping to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the Americans who participate; and returning to the U.S. to share their experiences.
Each year the corps trains more than 7,000 volunteers and trainees in the field, where they serve an average of two years. Peace Corps workers directly help the communities in which they are placed in the areas of agriculture, community economic development, education, the environment, health and youth development.
In return, volunteers receive a living stipend, free medical and dental care, paid vacations and, ultimately, training in foreign languages and other marketable skills, as well as preferential treatment in federal jobs hiring and scholastic advantages.
The admittedly lengthy registration process takes about nine months. Applicants who are accepted usually receive about five months notice before the date of their departure. Both the safety and health of participants are of utmost importance to the agency, and considerations are made for family emergencies and other unforeseen circumstances. About 12 percent of participants drop out before completing their two-year commitment.
Despite the precarious state of the U.S. economy today, Hunsicker said the program has not faced budget cutbacks, and looks set to continue its mission into the foreseeable future.
"The Peace Corps has widespread bipartisan support in Congress," he said. "I think that's partly because the work that we do helps to resolve conflicts in many countries, before they start, which is something Congress takes an interest in. We have volunteers from all political persuasions take part."
Allie Griffiths, 18, attended Thursday's session with her mother, Stephanie.
"I'm very interested in this program," said Griffiths, who spent five months in Tanzania last summer as part of the Experiment in International Living program. "This has really opened my eyes to the Peace Corps."
Griffiths, who will graduate from Key West High School in June with the Class of 2014, plans to attend Boston University in the fall, majoring in international affairs with a minor in conflict resolution. However, she is strongly considering applying to the Peace Corps in between her undergraduate and graduate school years.
"I'd really like to take advantage of this opportunity to volunteer somewhere where they speak French," Griffiths said, "which would most likely mean somewhere in West Africa or in Southeast Asia."
According to Monroe County historian Tom Hambright, the Peace Corps once brought volunteers to Key West for training before sending them off to their overseas destinations, but the practice was halted in the mid-1960s after a series of unfortunate incidents.
"There was a problem in 1966 with a group of influential Micronesian government officials, who where in town to oversee the training of Peace Corps volunteers who were headed off to their country," Hambright said. "They were refused haircuts by both the white and black barbershops in town, but the mayor at the time defused that situation by presenting the group with the key to the city, as well as a list of barbershops that agreed to take their business." During the same visit, Hambright said, a member of the Micronesian entourage was hospitalized after having his eye nearly gouged out by an angry pimp following a prostitution deal gone wrong at the Town House Motor Inn, where the La Concha stands today.
Thursday's recruitment session was the first in Key West since at least the early 1970s, Hunsicker said. At least 36 Key Westers have taken part in the program since its founding.
For information on the Peace Corps, go to www.peacecorps.gov/
tschmida@keysnews.com

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