Last week, the Peace Corps celebrated its 52nd anniversary. As two of five returned Peace Corps volunteers in the House of Representatives, we can, without question, say that the Peace Corps changed our lives, our perspectives and now our missions as members of Congress. One of us having served in El Salvador and the other in Somalia, we returned to the United States fundamentally transformed.
We were motivated by the very American ideal of service — service to our neighbors, near or far, in need of a helping hand. This is what motivated Sargent Shriver’s work when he became the first director of the Peace Corps, as well as when he founded Volunteers in Service to America, the domestic equivalent.
The effect of our time in El Salvador and Somalia was profound, and we would encourage every young American to consider serving in the Peace Corps or with a domestic service organization. Aside from the personal influence programs such as the Peace Corps can have on the individuals who volunteer, selfless charity is exactly what the world needs.
The Peace Corps is rightly oriented toward helping the global poor in the far reaches of the developing world. But even here in our own American backyard, there are ample service opportunities for young people to make a difference and many low-income neighborhoods that need a helping hand.
But service is what’s important, and donating one’s talents and time to those less fortunate should be supported. Shriver recognized this. Poverty is reduced through service, and Shriver’s commitment to spreading American good will is why he was charged with tackling this nation’s first war on poverty. Foreseeing a serious threat facing America, internally and externally, Shriver helped organize the Peace Corps, VISTA and other service-based programs to address poverty here and abroad.
Now, 52 years later, his message is as poignant as ever. Poverty is not political, nor is the need or call for service. Helping our neighbors through public service, whether on this continent or another, brings a broad spectrum of benefits, from boosted self-esteem to a bolstered sense of security. It serves the greater good of our community and theirs. And it sends a message to other countries that the United States is a charitable global partner.
Going forward, more is needed to boost the Peace Corps. To better tackle emerging global crises, we need the Peace Corps to be stronger, better, bolder and more diverse.
By stronger, we need to recognize that the benefits of a robust organization that uses eager and talented volunteers ready to travel to unfamiliar and potentially dangerous countries to offer their service are immeasurable. And we should be encouraging returned volunteers to stay connected with the Peace Corps and continue to serve after their official duties have ended.
By better, we can continue to improve the Peace Corps by equipping our volunteers with the technological and cultural expertise that they need to be successful in their placements. Peace Corps placement, then, becomes not only a service opportunity but also an informal internship that results in a more knowledgeable individual capable of putting their experience to use post-service.
By bolder, we are suggesting mainstreaming the service concept so it spans society — regardless of sex, age or race. There are benefits of an age- and race-diversified volunteer corps. A more diverse Peace Corps would allow for greater success in certain regions of the world depending on experience, language skills or country-of-origin. Recognizing the international, national and individual benefits of public service, we need to be creative in encouraging Americans of all ages and backgrounds to volunteer.
If America makes this a priority, we not only help the global poor become more self-sufficient, stable and secure — which in turn makes our country more secure — but we simultaneously increase good will toward the United States through development-based diplomacy.
Peace Corps volunteers represent the hope and opportunity that make America great. We mark the 52nd anniversary by honoring their service and ushering in the next generation of volunteers to serve our nation in the name of peace and international community-building.
Rep. Michael M. Honda, D-Calif., served as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador from 1965 to 1967. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Somalia from 1966 to 1967.