Curious how an old photograph can just sit there, unremarkable, unless the viewer is connected to the subject. Then, a monsoon of memories might be suddenly unleashed. That recently happened to me when the local group of returned Peace Corps volunteers, the Santa Barbara Peace Corps Association, called for images and items to flesh out an exhibit celebrating the agency’s upcoming 50th anniversary.
As I looked at Brazilian faces and places I had known in the mid-1960s, names and activities flooded back unbidden: Saturnino and Virgilina, the couple that owned and ran the modest boardinghouse that was my home during two years in the small southwestern town of Camapua; Benedita, the competent nurse who ran the local state health post to which I was assigned; Deusdedith, a co-worker who became my best friend and able successor.
Then there were the dozens of other friends, casual acquaintances, politicians, ranchers, farmers, students, teachers, truck drivers, tailors, shopkeepers, and other small businesspeople I got to know in the course of working to improve the health of the community. Some were of great assistance with my initiatives, others indifferent, but all broadened my view of life inside a different culture. All contributed to my personal education and, despite numerous failures, sense of self-confidence. Even the phony physician, Dr. Ricardo—but that is another story.
While returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) are unique individuals, and each has had positive and negative experiences in the 139 countries that have hosted them, they share some things in common. For one, most feel somewhat undeserving when praised for their alleged “sacrifice.” They seldom see their service time—27 months is the standard commitment today—as postponing something more rewarding or subjecting them to abnormal hardship.
Many have told me, “I gained more from this experience than I gave” the people of the host country. Not a few have declared that their lives were permanently altered for the better because of what they learned about themselves and others. Some find their life’s work or purpose; many do not. Peace Corps can be personally challenging but it is not psychotherapy.
RPCVs also know that not everyone is suited for Peace Corps because we’ve seen friends and fellow trainees go home prior to their scheduled end of service. They go for many reasons, all of which are evaluated by them and the agency. Those who become seriously ill or injured are cared for, but a few do not make it home. Nearly every year someone, in Lincoln’s words, gives that “last full measure of devotion.” More than 250 have died in the field since the agency began in 1961. Most of these deaths were caused by motor vehicle accidents, and the huge majority occurred in the Peace Corps’ first 20 years.
Now there are around 180,000 RPCVs—more than 1,500 are UCSB alums—who have come home to tell our peace stories. Some have coalesced into support groups for specific host countries, known as the “Friends of…” network. Others have formed general community service and support groups in different regions, like the local group staging the current anniversary exhibition and presentations at UC Santa Barbara’s Davidson Library.
Cosponsored by the UCSB-based Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life as well as the library, the display emphasizes Africa, where 37 percent of current projects are located, but touches other regions of the Peace Corps world. It embraces artifacts, pictures, articles, textiles, and books by RPCV authors and about the agency.
Organized and mounted by a small team under the direction of returned Philippine volunteer Robin Smith, the exhibit, which runs through November 21, can only hint at the potential richness of a Peace Corps engagement. Enhancing this information is a series of Wednesday presentations, all at 7 p.m. in the main floor exhibit area. The ones still to come are a panel of RPCV authors speaking on November 10 about “Peace Corps Volunteers as Witnesses” and, on November 17, a returnee from Honduras talking “Peace Corps: Continuing the Service.”
November 21 is also when current Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams and National Peace Corps Association President Kevin F. Quigley speak on campus about “The Future of International Service.” Their addresses, which will be at 3 p.m. in Campbell Hall, are part of a national effort to honor the agency’s accomplishments and energize the ideal of public service.
Given the lingering effects of the Great Recession and the persistent, polarizing negativity shrouding the American political stage, this not a modest goal. But it is worthwhile, and many citizens besides RPCVs have enlisted in the campaign.