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U.S. Should Make the Peace Corps Bigger and Better

The Peace Corps is back — in fashion, that is. Thanks to President Barack Obama’s inaugural pitch for national service and his homeless shelter volunteerism on Martin Luther King Day, applications are on the rise. The call for service seems to be catching. Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) are currently blueprinting a bipartisan Serve America Act that will boost federal funds for national volunteers, and Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton plugged the Peace Corps in Indonesia, encouraging the country to open its doors after decades of deterrence.

Having answered President John F. Kennedy’s call for Peace Corps recruits in the 1960s and serving in El Salvador — I’m one of four Members of the House who volunteered — I think this is a good sign.

My time in El Salvador taught me so much. I went into the corps as a college student shy of graduation with little direction; I emerged with the confidence that my emotional, psychological and physical limits had been pushed, plied and ultimately surpassed. I went into the corps driven by the shame of my youthful lack of direction; I emerged determined to do something about the pervasive poverty surrounding me.

I went into the corps speaking one language; I emerged speaking another: Spanish, a gift that introduced me to a new world, gave me a new way of understanding new cultures and helped me connect to constituents in California. The Peace Corps got me back to the basics, and I realized that every day is a gift to be used wisely. That gift is what guides me now in Congress.

Yet, more is needed to boost the Peace Corps. The call for service by Obama is an important first step. But in order to heal America’s reputation in the world and better tackle emerging global crises, we need the Peace Corps to be bigger, better, bolder and more diverse. And what better time to reinvigorate the Peace Corps than as it approaches its 50th anniversary in 2011.

By bigger, we are calling for a doubling of Peace Corps volunteers. Currently, we have 7,876 volunteers enlisted, serving poor and needy communities throughout the world and promoting better understanding between Americans and host country populations. Since JFK’s call in 1961, when Peace Corps was officially established, 195,000 volunteers have served in more than 139 countries. These are goodwill ambassadors of the most effective form, offering a helping hand to those who need it.

With nearly 8,000 volunteers, we are now in 76 countries. By doubling this number, we could double the placements and the number of countries served. Amid America’s troubled diplomatic waters — whether with countries in South America, South Asia or Africa — the benefits of having our young men and women in volunteer service, showing the best of what America has to offer, are immeasurable.

Doubling the digits, however, requires funding, but not much, comparatively speaking. Peace Corps funding for 2009 was only $330.8 million, relatively little in light of the benefits to our country in diplomacy, outreach and service to poor populations. What we spend in Iraq in one day would fund 7,876 volunteers for an entire year of service — a clearly doable goal.

By better, we can continue to improve on the Peace Corps by equipping our volunteers with the technological and cultural expertise that they need to be successful in their placements. The top six sectors served by the Peace Corps volunteers are education, health, business development, environment, youth and agriculture. As global poverty rates increase and natural disasters fueled by climate change continue to wreak havoc on the impoverished, the Peace Corps will continue to be called on to play a pre-emptive role in preparedness strategies. If trained and equipped appropriately, our volunteers can ensure that the poor are better prepared for the next tsunami, bird flu or malaria outbreak.

To ensure this happens, I suggest a tutoring program through which Peace Corps volunteers seek sector-related training from international institutions, nongovernmental organizations or corporations. The Peace Corps placement, then, becomes not only a service opportunity, but also an informal internship that results in a more knowledgeable volunteer capable of joining the advising institution post-service.

By bolder, I am suggesting a mainstreaming of the service concept so it spans society — regardless of sex, age or race. To this end, Obama is working to reinvigorate Peace Corps’ patriotism. Right now, the average volunteer age is 27 years old, and 60 percent are women. Furthermore, minorities comprise only 15 percent of all volunteers.

I propose the benefits of an age- and race-diversified volunteer corps. A more race-diverse Peace Corps allows for greater understanding in regions of the world with which the volunteer may be familiar, given their family’s country of origin. A more age-diverse Peace Corps enables increased understanding and opportunities for cross-cultural connection based on life experience.

To achieve this, though, we must create incentives for Americans in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s to pursue the Peace Corps. Recognizing the international, national and individual benefits of public service, we need to be creative in thinking how the public and private sectors can provide service opportunities to their employees.

In founding the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver recognized the need for promoting public service by spearheading this nation’s first war on poverty. Headquartered in the U.S. government’s Office of Economic Opportunity, the war-room mentality was ever-present. Shriver foresaw the looming security threat facing America. In creating the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, the domestic version of Peace Corps, the farsighted Shriver understood that poverty was inextricably linked to the security of our national and global community.

Now is no different. Obama is poised to reposition the public service message, but he cannot do it single-handedly. That is why, as a former Peace Corps volunteer, I am calling for a Peace Corps that is bigger, better and bolder. And I am not alone. Former Peace Corps volunteers like me, returning to America the richness of our experience, stand ready to embolden new recruits into service.

If America makes this a priority, we not only help the global poor become more self-sufficient, stable and secure — which in turn makes our country more secure — but we simultaneously increase goodwill toward the United States through this development-based diplomacy.

All for one day’s worth of spending in Iraq.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) served as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador from 1965-1967.

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