June 24, 2002 - Washington Times: Corps veterans remember

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Corps veterans remember

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Corps veterans remember

By Jabeen Bhatti


Hundreds of former Peace Corps volunteers marched from the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington National Cemetery yesterday to celebrate the organization's 41st anniversary, remember those who died overseas and reaffirm a commitment to a service most said changed America and their lives.

"It was the most defining experience of my life," said Pam Dixon of Cincinnati, who worked with street children in Colombia from 1978 to 1981. "Most people will tell you that you learn to be a different kind of person. It turns your old self inside out."

The ceremony, held at the cemetery's amphitheater, preceded five days of celebrations, discussions about the organization's future and lobbying Congress to double the number of volunteers an idea endorsed by President Bush in his State of the Union address.

"The work must not only go on, it must grow," said Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez. "We must be a participant, not just a spectator in [remaking] the world."

Many former volunteers who now serve in Congress or in nonprofits spoke at the ceremony, fondly remembering their days working for the poor on foreign soil.

"We walked their paths, rode their buses, bathed in their pools and spoke their languages," said Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican who served in Fiji. "We came home different and with a greater appreciation of our country."

National Peace Corps Association Board Chairman Pat Reilly recalled receiving a phone call from the Peace Corps almost 30 years ago that "made a dream come true for me."

"They called me to go to a country I had never heard of Sierra Leone," she recalled. "So I politely explained that I didn't speak the language, knew nothing about Latin America and wanted to go to Africa."

Despite her faux pas Sierra Leone is in Africa the corps was desperate for English teachers, she said. Soon after, she was on her way to Liberia, years before that African nation's descent into civil war.

"No matter where we served, we were among the poor," she said. "That gave us a permanent stigmatism that insists on a world view from the bottom up. So we became the strongest advocates for the countries we served telling our stories over and over until someone listened."

The anniversary was also the first celebrated since the attacks of September 11, which forced the cancellation of the 40th anniversary commemoration that was to have been held on Sept. 20. Many former volunteers said that in the post-September 11 world it was even more critical for Americans to serve their country and "be at home in the world."

Former Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, an early supporter of the Peace Corps, serves as director of America's Promise, an alliance that works to better the nation's youth.

He said the country and the world were "better" for the efforts of the Peace Corps.

"President Kennedy wanted 100,000 volunteers a year so that in a decade, 1 million Americans would have experienced a foreign country," he said.

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