Members Cherish Experiences in Peace Corps

Former Volunteers Recall Stories, Valuable Lessons

Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:42pm

When President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, it was little more than a vision.

Fifty years later, the program’s effects can be seen in hard numbers: More than 200,000 volunteers have been sent to 139 countries.

For Members of Congress, one of the program’s statistics stands out. Fifteen former volunteers have been elected to Congress, including four current Members.

The Peace Corps has sent volunteers to help international communities by teaching English, building schools and helping grow businesses and farms.

Lawmakers who have worked for the organization, though, say the experience shaped them as much as they helped shape the villages that they lived in.

Former Sen. Chris Dodd, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1964 to 1966, called it “the most formative experience of my life.”

“The simple lessons you learn about public service and public life are just phenomenal,” Dodd said.

The four current Members who are former Peace Corps volunteers — California Democratic Reps. Sam Farr, Mike Honda and John Garamendi and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Tom Petri — have nominated the Peace Corps for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Each cherishes stories about his time with the program.

Rep. Sam Farr

Colombia, 1964-66

In his high school and college years, Farr racked up an eclectic, worldly résumé. He taught at a religious camp in Europe, sailed on a Merchant Marine ship and worked in an Argentinian factory. But he wanted more.

After graduating from college, the Peace Corps gave the restless young man an option besides the more conventional choices of getting a job, attending graduate school or joining the military.

His Peace Corps training taught him to listen to the local’s values instead of forcing them to do things by American standards.

That lesson struck home when the newly arrived Farr learned that the first project the villagers wanted to tackle was building a soccer field. He thought they should deal with other problems, such as the lack of water and electricity, poor education and meager health care.

“I thought it was nuts,” he said.

But he went along with it, playing the role of organizer. When the field was done, the community realized what they could accomplish. For their next project, they decided to build a school.

During Farr’s time in Colombia, his family was struck by tragedy. His mother died from cancer, and his sister was killed after being thrown from a horse while she was visiting him.

Yet these events didn’t taint his view of his experience or the organization.

“The Peace Corps is one of the greatest ideas this country has ever had,” he said.

The agency has a $400 million budget, and to Farr, that’s not acceptable. The government must not only keep the Peace Corps running but expand it, he said.

“It’s the best training anybody can have heading into the rest of their lives,” he said.

Rep. Mike Honda

El Salvador, 1965-67

Honda likes to say that he joined the Peace Corps because he needed to grow up.

As an Asian-American coming of age in the middle of the civil rights movement, he didn’t know where he fit in. He took a break from his studies at San Jose State University to join the Peace Corps.

“I realized that I wasn’t ready for the world,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to graduate. I had a lot of issues around self-esteem and did a lot of questioning for a young person growing up Asian in this country.”

On his first day in El Salvador, the villagers came to meet the van that he was dropped off in, but they ran right past him.

“I think they were expecting a blond-haired, blue-eyed guy,” Honda said.

He learned how important education was to the villagers. He remembers one student who used to walk three kilometers uphill to go to school. The boy went home each day during lunchtime, helping his parents work the land before walking back to school.

Honda recommended the boy for a scholarship in the United States. The boy ended up returning to El Salvador after only nine months because he was homesick.

But that exposure made a difference in the child’s life. Last year, Honda got a letter from the student, now an engineer in his home country.

“The thought that he could ever become an engineer based on where he came from was absolutely absurd, but it happened,” Honda said.

Rep. Tom Petri

Somalia, 1966-67

Petri didn’t expect to get into the Peace Corps for one reason: He applied but never took the volunteer test required of those who want to join the agency.

Despite that, he got a packet in the mail congratulating him on being accepted into the agency’s first class of volunteers in 1962. (Years later, he learned that the agency was so eager to get started that they accepted anyone they thought would do well on the exam, regardless of whether they actually took the test.)

Petri decided to attend Harvard Law School and turned down the program, saying that if they needed a lawyer in three years, they should give him a call.

After he completed law school, Petri finally joined the Peace Corps, working as a lawyer in Somalia. He spent much of his time translating the country’s laws into English, at one point visiting a government office daily because they would only give him one law a day.

The experience taught Petri to appreciate the freedoms that U.S. citizens enjoy.

“You realize how fortunate we are with our Constitution and principles,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity others don’t have in other places. When you see that, you stop taking it for granted.”

Rep. John Garamendi

Ethiopia, 1966-68

Garamendi was a football player at the University of California, Berkeley, poised to play professionally. By the start of his senior year in 1965, teams such as the Oakland Raiders and the Dallas Cowboys were interested in drafting him.

But his course changed when he asked his girlfriend, Patti, to be his wife. Patti planned to join the Peace Corps and told him she didn’t think it work out between them.

“And I said, ‘Well, I’m heading for the Peace Corps, too,’” he said.

The two married in December 1965. By June 1966, they were off to Ethiopia, where they were stationed as teachers and helped with community development.

Even today, their relationship with the agency still hasn’t ended. Two daughters, one son and a daughter-in-law all served as Peace Corps volunteers. Patti was the associate director of the agency during the Clinton administration.

And because of his Peace Corps experience, Garamendi helped negotiate a treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea when the countries were at war in the late 1990s.

He recalled that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki had been taught by Peace Corps volunteers in high school. So had Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

“Those two heads of state were willing to meet with American Peace Corps volunteers when neither of them were willing to meet with the American government,” Garamendi said. “Our work stood on the shoulders of the volunteers who had been there before.”