April 10, 2002 - Chicago Daily Herald: Locals happy to join the few, the proud, the Peace Corps volunteers

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Locals happy to join the few, the proud, the Peace Corps volunteers

Locals happy to join the few, the proud, the Peace Corps volunteers

Locals happy to join the few, the proud, the Peace Corps volunteers

Apr 9, 2002 - Chicago Daily Herald Author(s): Burt Constable

Those thrilling, glitzy, military TV commercials showing energetic young people scaling cliffs, playing video games, slaying dragons and scooting around the globe in fighter jets can make even the most pacifistic viewer contemplate a stint in the Marines.

"They've got great commercials, don't they?" gushes Scot Roskelley, spokesman for the Peace Corps office in Chicago. "Actually, we do, too. They just run as public service announcements, usually at 2 in the morning."

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, our life during wartime focuses plenty of attention on our military forces. But the Peace Corps is picking up the pace as well.

"We saw a rise before 9-11," Roskelley says of interest in the Peace Corps. "As early as August of last year, our numbers were up 20 percent."

A struggling economy and a tight job market probably made the Peace Corps a more attractive option, Roskelley adds.

In the 10 weeks since the State of the Union address in which President Bush urged all Americans to perform community service, applications at the Peace Corps are up nearly 25 percent, Roskelley says. Bush hosted a national roundtable discussion Monday on the importance of volunteering in this nation, and the Peace Corps takes that message worldwide.

"We have a goal in the next five years to double the numbers of volunteers we've got," Roskelley says. Started by President Kennedy in 1961 with 124 volunteers, the Peace Corps grew to a high of 15,556 recruits by 1966. The numbers dropped during the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and fell to fewer than 6,000 volunteers in the 1980s.

Among the 300 Chicago-area residents now helping the Peace Corps swell above 7,000 are Elgin native Rich Tracy, and newlyweds Mike and Beth Thomas of Batavia.

"I'm supposed to have my own hut," says Tracy, a 26-year-old construction management expert who leaves next month for Lesotho, a small, mountainous nation completely within the borders of South Africa. He figures he won't have running water or electricity he can depend on, but he can't pass on the opportunity to immerse himself in a foreign land and do something good at the same time.

"I'll miss out on the World Series and the Super Bowl, but I can read about those in the paper," he says.

Having applied in August of last year, Tracy says the 9-11 attacks gave him "second thoughts," but he notes the Peace Corps has been in Lesotho for 30 years and has its own support system of about 100 volunteers.

As part of the 9 percent of Peace Corps volunteers who join as married couples, Mike and Beth Thomas, both 23, will be leaving in June for Mauritania, a former French colony on the west coast of Africa, north of Senegal.

As the daughter of Christian missionaries, Beth spent a year of her early childhood in Senegal and knew that she wanted to spend time as an adult helping others in a foreign land.

"At first, I thought she was crazy," admits Mike, who went to high school with Beth in West Chicago and identifies himself as "just kind of a normal, suburban kid" who really hasn't strayed too far from the Midwest.

But after graduating from college and getting married, the couple figures now is the time. She'll teach English as a second language and he'll help train people to run small businesses.

"We're not into money and collecting things," Mike says.

"We're not going to have this opportunity at any other time in our lives," Beth adds.

The median age of Peace Corps volunteers is 25, but 7 percent are 50 or older and many older people (the oldest volunteer is 82) apply after a divorce or the kids leave home, Roskelley adds.

Peace Corps volunteers agree to a 27-month commitment, with the first three months spent in orientation to learn the language and culture. They are paid modest wages to cover room, board and incidentals, receive health insurance and vacation time and are given $6,000 when their service is complete. For more information, visit the Web site at www.peacecorps.gov or call the Chicago office at (312) 353-4990.

The 9-11 attacks and anti-American sentiment simply reinforced the Thomases' desire to help a foreign nation.

"It made us question, take a second look at it," Beth says, noting that she and Mike will be settling in a Muslim nation. "Now, it's almost more important to go and break that stereotype of Americans."

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Story Source: Chicago Daily Herald

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Recruitment



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