Rep. Sam Farr poses with students whom he taught during his time volunteering with the Peace Corps in Colombia from 1964 to 1966.
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.