Celebrating 50 years of the Peace Corps

All photos Anne Larkin/Catalyst

On Saturday, Feb. 26, citizens with some fascinating stories and fully stamped passports gathered in St. Armand’s Circle to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. Differentiated by their blue hats, or for many the dress of the country they spent two intimate years with, the volunteers happily reminisced with one another and commemorated the beloved American program.

Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner, a former Peace Corps volunteer himself, officially declared March 1 as the 50th anniversary in Sarasota and read a proclamation lauding the Peace Corps as “an enduring symbol of the United States’ commitment to encouraging progress and creating opportunities at the grassroots level in the developing world,” and thanking the 200,000 volunteers for not just their work overseas but the “wider perspective” that they have brought back with them to their home communities.

Returned volunteers were eager to share stories of their adventures and to heartily praise the program.

“It’s by far the best experience I ever had in my whole life,” said Todd Cook, who volunteered in Panama in 1964. “It was life changing.”

“Join! It’ll change your life completely, for the better,” said Susan Wolfson, who volunteered in Costa Rica in 1985. “When I was a kid I used to watch the Peace Corps commercials, and I thought ‘That’s what I want to do.’” As a volunteer, Wolfson got to ride a horse through rural Costa Rica to her job as a teacher-trainer.

The event was organized by Pattie Walsh, chair of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of the Gulf Coast of Florida (RPCVGCF), as a way to not only commemorate the milestone anniversary and thank the many volunteers but also to acquaint the community with the group.

“Our whole presence in our countries was to volunteer for the community and I really want to bring that back to our communities here,” said Walsh, who volunteered on a wildlife reserve in Madagascar in 2001. The RPCVGCF serves multiple purposes: beyond working as a means for volunteers to connect with one another, it’s also a resource for those considering joining the Peace Corps and their family and friends. She explained that those “who may be a little apprehensive or a little nervous can get affirmation that it’s a good thing, that’s it’s a positive influence on their life.”

Talking with any returned volunteer will certainly reinforce this idea. “It will forever change your life,” Tom Wentzel, who volunteered in Swaziland in 1969, stated. “It will forever open your eyes and make you a better world citizen. And the friends that you make will be with you forever.” Randy Trudelle, who volunteered in Afghanistan in 1968, and then later Bolivia and Peru said, “If anyone is interested they should just do it. And find out if it’s for them. Because if the person does it, it’s going to change their life. Hopefully for the better.”

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by President Kennedy with Executive Order 10924, declaring the purpose of the program as “To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.” Fifty years later, the Peace Corps is still doing just that. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have relocated to 139 foreign nations for two years of their lives, dedicating themselves to improving their adopted community, whether though education, agriculture, environmental protection, information technology, health and nutrition, business development or HIV/AIDS prevention. They improve their communities and promote peace, they empower those without power and work to better the conditions of the developing world and they return to their home country enriched by their experience with a continued intent to serve.

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