Former Peace Corps volunteers are reminding lawmakers of the program’s value this week with an exhibit in the Russell Senate Office Building’s Rotunda of vintage photographs they took while working in postwar South Korea.
Gerard A. Krzic and Stephen B. Wickman are members of Friends of Korea, a loose-knit association of former Peace Corps volunteers who served in South Korea at some point during the program’s operative years there, 1966 to 1981.
“It’s a program that costs almost no money that has huge benefits for us as well as for the countries that are recipients,” Wickman said. “Probably more for us, though, because as one person you can only do so much, but you’re touched by all these people.”
Wearing pins that read “Ask me why the Peace Corps matters,” Krzic and Wickman explained that the weeklong exhibit in the Russell Rotunda is intended to spur support and awareness for the Peace Corps 52 years after President John F. Kennedy created it by executive order.
“Like Steve said, the minimal investment the government put in him and put in other volunteers, and what we’ve done since that service, the country’s got back exponentially,” Krzic said, using Wickman as an example.
The exhibit, titled “A Story of Volunteerism: Americans in Korea and Koreans in the World,” is also sponsored by the Korea International Cooperation Agency, a South Korean program inspired by the American model of foreign volunteer service.
“That sort of became the theme of this exhibit: to talk about U.S. volunteers in Korea and the next stage, if you will, where Koreans themselves are sending out volunteers all over the world,” Friends of Korea President Nancy Kelly said.
Though the group is displaying the exhibit in a Senate office building, Friends of Korea isn’t lobbying, asking for or promoting anything, she said. The goal is to remind lawmakers of the effect the program has and of Americans’ deep affection for and friendship with the Koreans.
“There’s several layers of awareness this year,” Kelly said, citing anniversaries this year connected to the Korean War. The Defense Department is hosting an event in July, for instance, to honor and recognize all Korean War veterans.
The office of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, helped secure the necessary permission to display the photographs in the Russell Rotunda.
The photos show Peace Corps volunteers with Korean children and the elderly, as well as later images of Korean citizens volunteering abroad after their own country recovered from civil war and the resulting destitution. In one image, a young woman named Kathleen Stephens shares a wide grin with a group of adolescent Korean boys and holds a toddler on her lap. Stephens later became the ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011
“It’s a wonderful way to humanize America,” Kelly said. “I think the Peace Corps Volunteers really do make a significant dent in making a real image of Americans.”