The Peace Corps' Domestic Dividend
July 11, 1997San Diego Union-Tribune By Mark D. Gearan
SAN DIEGO - JULY 11, 1997 - This weekend, more than 500 returned Peace Corps volunteers will convene in San Diego for a four-day conference that will, among other things, demonstrate the "domestic dividend" of the Peace Corps, one of President John F. Kennedy's most enduring legacies.
Spurred by a spirit of service and idealism, Peace Corps volunteers are working to solve some of the most basic but intransigent problems in the developing world. But for the returned Peace Corps volunteers gathered in San Diego, their service did not end when they boarded a plane for the United States. Instead, by continuing their service here at home they bring a "domestic dividend" to communities throughout our country.
Since 1961, nearly 150,000 Americans have answered President Kennedy's call to public service by joining the Peace Corps, including 20,000 from California, by far the most from any state. Today, 6,500 volunteers are working at the grass-roots level in education, small business development, the environment, health and agriculture in 87 countries.
And when they come home, many returned Peace Corps volunteers pursue distinguished careers in public service. One returned volunteer, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala (Iran, 1962-64), is a member of the President's cabinet.
Californians such as Congressman Sam Farr (Colombia, 1964-66), the Mayor of Sacramento, Joseph Serna (Guatemala, 1964-66), Deputy Secretary of the Interior John Garamendi (Ethiopia, 1966-68), Priscilla Wrubel (Liberia, 1963-65), founder of The Nature Company, Robert Haas (Ivory Coast, 1964-66), the president of Levi Strauss, and Gordon Radley (Malawi, 1968-70), president of Lucasfilms, all served in the Peace Corps.
Other returned volunteers are serving their communities in equally important ways and making an enormous difference in the lives of ordinary Americans. Returned Peace Corps volunteers are teaching kids how to read.
They are organizing youth activities, serving in local parent/teacher associations, and spending time with elderly citizens in nursing homes. On Saturday, returned volunteers in San Diego will contribute their time and talents to a construction project with Habitat for Humanity, serve food at the St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen, and help clean up the beach front with the local organization, "I Love a Clean San Diego."
These are just a few examples of how returned Peace Corps volunteers make a tangible difference in the lives of people not only around the world, but also here at home. But returned Peace Corps volunteers also make a larger, more intangible contribution to our country: their overseas experience has served to strengthen and expand America's understanding of the world and its peoples. Peace Corps volunteers live and work at the grass-roots level for two years in communities where few Americans ever go. (Indeed, for many people in the developing world, a their first contact with an American was a Peace Corps volunteer.) They learn the languages of the people they serve and become immersed in cultures and customs that are vastly different from our own.
When they complete their service overseas, returned volunteers bring this extraordinary experience back to the United States, where they share it with their communities and often use it throughout their careers. This makes returned volunteers a tremendous asset for our country's participation in the global marketplace. Moreover, their cross-cultural skills can also play an important role in helping to find common ground amid the growing complexities of our own multi-cultural society.
Sargent Shriver, the first Director of the Peace Corps, once said that "the greatest impact of the Peace Corps will be felt not overseas, but here at home." He was right. As the hundreds of returned volunteers here in San Diego—and thousands of others like them across the country—will prove, the Peace Corps' "domestic divgo—and thousands of others like them across the country—will prove, the Peace Corps' "domestic dividend" is an integral part of its genius.