Even as the U.S. military carries on in Iraq and Afghanistan, another federal agency is waging a different kind of war-working for the well-being of America’s global neighbors. The Peace Corps is going strong, with about 8,000 volunteers working in 139 countries, and actually expanded under the Bush administration.
The Peace Corps has a strong presence in Santa Barbara. UC Santa Barbara is a gold mine of sorts for recruiters; it is ranked 11th among universities nationwide in providing volunteers since the organization’s founding in 1961.
Furthermore, returned volunteers in this area have organized themselves into the Santa Barbara Peace Corps Association. Members meet monthly for happy hours and maintain a speakers bureau. They participate in local volunteer activities such as painting the Eastside Dental Clinic, and administer a small grants program to help projects (AIDS education, library expansion) in developing countries.
For area residents thinking about joining the Peace Corps, the S.B. Peace Corps Association would be a great place to start. Returned volunteers are willing to share their experience and answer any questions from would-be applicants. Especially exciting in the realm of recruiting is the Peace Corps’ 50+ campaign, by which people older than 50 are encouraged to offer their job skills and maturity to make the world a better place.
Robert Stevens and Cara Lane are active members of the local returned volunteers group. They were happy to share their stories.
Robert Stevens, Tonga 1995-1997
Robert Stevens actually was inspired by what he bemusedly called “hokey” TV commercials of an earnest volunteer walking in rice paddies. The recruiting slogan, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love,” resonated with the biochemistry major, and when a post-college job got boring, he thought the time was now or never.
Some of the biggest fears people have, he said, are developing-world toilets, extreme weather, or lack of conveniences. Turns out, these challenges are surmountable.
“The physical deprivations are the easiest to get over,” said Stevens, now 42 and a real estate broker. He worked as a teacher and environment information officer in Tonga, a nation of islands in southern Polynesia. “The tougher thing is the mental aspect, adjusting to a new culture, and fitting in.”
Essentially, Peace Corps volunteers live in poverty, he said. They earn a small stipend, with their housing and medical care covered by the organization. They usually ride a bicycle for transportation, and their diet will be defined by food choices in the host country.
For Stevens, learning to live with less made a deep impression on him. Upon returning to the U.S., he marveled at hot showers, and still feels gratitude for that comfort. He chuckles at people who say they have to “do laundry.” Many Peace Corps volunteers do not have access to washers and dryers, so doing laundry entails a bucket, soapy water, and a brush.
The people of Tonga, with whom he shared two years of his life, taught Stevens his most precious lesson-a new concept of wealth. Tongans define wealth through a spiritual measure. In the United States, he said, “We can be materially wealthy, put spiritually poor.”
Cara Lane, Morocco 2005-2007
Having completed her senior project in college on the Peace Corps, Cara Lane knew a lot about the negatives and positives of serving in the organization. Yes, sometimes volunteers are taught the incorrect dialect in-country, or they aren’t provided enough resources to complete a difficult assignment.
But the positives proved irresistible to her. “Some of the successes were intangible,” said Lane, 27, who majored in justice and peace studies and political science, and now works as an office manager for Congressmember Lois Capps. “People would say, ‘It changed my life. It changed me as a person.'”
Lane had also been an avid traveler. She had studied in Egypt, learned Arabic, and was intrigued by Islam and cultures in the Middle East. On her Peace Corps application, Lane had requested a position in the Middle East, and the only two choices are Jordan and Morocco in that region.
Her intensive research also revealed the Peace Corps to be the best financial option when comparing various overseas volunteer opportunities. It offers a decent living stipend, student loan deferment (even partial cancellation of certain loans), and $6,000 in readjustment money upon completing service.
She experienced profound satisfaction working with youth and women in the town of Qelaat M’Gouna in southern Morocco. At a youth center, Lane ran a theater club, directed an English-language library, and taught a course in photography. “They had never used a camera,” she recalled. The exhibit, celebrated with a festival, turned out to be a perspective of the community through the eyes of youth. “They got photos I would never have access to.”
As most of the neighborhood women were not getting regular physical exercise, Lane led them in yoga classes. When a women’s rights law passed in Morocco, Lane held workshops. She let women know they now had the right to divorce, and that they could marry without their father’s permission, among other legal liberties.
Lane said the toughest part of her service was when it came to an end. “The most difficult thing was leaving my town. I had worked so hard to make it a home, to win their trust, and be part of the community.”
Are you older than 50?
- Applications from older people are up 40 percent from last year.
- Five percent of current volunteers are age 50 or older.
- Married couples are encouraged to apply.
- Visit peacecorps.gov/50plus.
- 50+ Panel Discussion: Saturday, January 10, 2009, from 1-2:30 p.m. at L.A. Peace Corps Office (2361 Rosecrans Blvd., Ste. 155, El Segundo). Call (310) 356-1114.
• The S.B. area Peace Corps recruiter is Shane Mathias (Panama 2004-07). Contact him by phone at (310) 356-1102 or email email@example.com.