February 1, 2002 - Seattle Times: Volunteers in the spotlight: The Peace Corps has matured since the 1960s

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By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, February 01, 2002 - 1:30 pm: Edit Post

Volunteers in the spotlight: The Peace Corps has matured since the 1960s

Read and comment on this story from the Seattle Times on the Peace Corps today featuring Joshua Curtis in the picture above who served in the Dominican Republic at:

Volunteers in the spotlight: The Peace Corps has matured since the 1960s *

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Volunteers in the spotlight: The Peace Corps has matured since the 1960s

By Sarah Lopez Williams Northwest Life editor

Joshua Curtis brought running water to a patch of the Dominican Republic, to a place so small it can't even be described as a village. In return, the farming families there polished his broken Spanish and baptized him, giving him a few more godparents than most people need: nine, in all.

That's a glimpse of today's Peace Corps, which President Bush wants to double in size in the next five years. If you're tempted by the 27-month tours, now in 70 countries, Curtis has this advice:

Be clear. Be clear about why you want to help.

This week, Bush envisioned a "new culture of responsibility," as he put it in his State of the Union address, before calling for the Peace Corps to grow, regaining its previous strength. With 7,000 volunteers and trainees, it's half the size it was at its peak in the days after President Kennedy challenged Americans to help the world.

Bush's speech spotlighted volunteerism and called for a dramatic expansion of the three federally sponsored volunteer groups. Along with the Peace Corps, he wants the Senior Corps to grow by 100,000, and AmeriCorps the domestic Peace Corps to grow by 100,000. And the president announced a new umbrella agency, USA Freedom Corps, to oversee all three.

In Seattle, Peace Corps officials point to Curtis, 27, as typical of today's corps. The University of Oregon grad served in the Dominican Republic for four years, arriving in the Caribbean country armed only with some college Spanish and limited knowledge of his new job water and sanitation. The Peace Corps and the people in his new home of Carrera Bonita taught him the rest.

What is today's Peace Corps?

"I think everyone has residual '60s images of someone with a big beard and long hair, roughing it in the backcountry," said Curtis. "In my case, it was actually true."

Home in Carrera Bonita, near the Haitian border, was a shack with a dirt floor, in want of water and electricity. He was the only Peace Corps volunteer in the area but he was embraced in home after home and eventually gained minor notoriety in the community as an American who could play pretty good bachata, the traditional folk music of the Dominican Republic.

His mission there was water. Townspeople raised beans and pigeon peas with rainwater but traveled almost daily by mule or foot to collect drinking water at a river four miles from Carrera Bonita. By the time he left, Curtis had helped them build a system that brought public water taps to town, one for every five houses.

From there, he became a volunteer coordinator and disaster-preparedness coordinator for the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, before finally settling in Seattle this summer to be near family and search for nonprofit work.

His advice to those driven by this "culture of responsibility" to join the Peace Corps?

"Make sure your intentions are honest and well thought out," Curtis said. Don't join to escape your life at home and don't go looking for two years of partying.

And perhaps most important, don't think you're going to change the world or the people you serve.

"You should not go into it wanting to fix all the wrongs out there, because then you are bringing all your values and judgments," he said. "That's a task one person should not be taking on."

Jim Aguirre of the Northwest Regional Peace Corps office thinks there is less of that idealism today than there was when the corps was in its infancy. "I think the program has grown and matured and many people are focused," he said. He described the '60s notion of the corps as a laudable but more nebulous "I want to go help someone."

Most who join the Peace Corps today do succeed in finishing their assignment 75 percent, said Aguirre. But few minorities are part of the program (just 15 percent) and there is a special need for French speakers, since fewer and fewer schools are teaching the language.

Curtis, of course, misses his comadres and compadres his godparents in the Dominican Republic. And he describes, in a very 1960s sort of way, how today's Peace Corps changed him: "I don't place as much importance on career as opposed to lifestyle," he said. "It changed the way I view things, where I place a lot of my values, because it deepened me."

"If that doesn't sound" he quickly added "trite."

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By Joanne Marie Roll (joey) on Saturday, February 02, 2002 - 2:31 pm: Edit Post

It is only fair to say that the expanison of the Peace Corps in 1966 occurred concurently with the Johnson adminstration's expansion of the draft. Peace Corps was never alternative service, but it was deferred service. The explosion in peace corps numbers may have represented idealism; but it also represented self-preservation. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Except, of course, if you were a minority man, who didn't have the educational pre-reqs for the Peace Corps and were drafted, instead, for Vietnam.

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