March 28, 2002 - Winston-Salem Journal: Bush's Peace Corps reference in speech likely to lend a hand

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Bush's Peace Corps reference in speech likely to lend a hand

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Bush's Peace Corps reference in speech likely to lend a hand*

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Bush's Peace Corps reference in speech likely to lend a hand

By Michelle Johnson JOURNAL REPORTER

When President Bush issued his call for national service during the State of the Union Address this year, folks at the National Peace Corps office felt the effect immediately.

"The phones started ringing off the hook," said Lynn Heichel Kneedler, the manager of the mid-Atlantic regional office in Arlington, Va.

"The president's having mentioned the Peace Corps in the State of the Union was an elixir," she said.

About 12,000 people apply to the Peace Corps every year for 3,500 jobs. Kneedler said it was likely that the organization will have more applicants this year.

Kneedler, who was in Winston-Salem yesterday for a reception for Peace Corps volunteers at Wake Forest University, said that several factors, including the weak economy and the president's plug for the organization, play into the higher level of interest this year.

Last month, Bush suggested that the number of Peace Corps volunteers should be doubled to about 15,000. That would bring the number of volunteers to a level not seen since 1966.

To do that, Bush has requested an additional $200 million for the international service program over the next five years, which would raise the corps' budget about 15 percent each year.

To accommodate the growth, the Peace Corps will try to place more volunteers in each of the 70 countries where it already operates, Kneedler said. It also plans expansions into such countries as Bosnia, Vietnam, Botswana and Swaziland. Last week, the Peace Corps signed an agreement with Peru to resume operations there, and programs are starting again in the Central Asian countries of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the Kyrgyzstan Republic, where volunteers were evacuated after Sept. 11.

The Peace Corps, which was started 41 years ago by President Kennedy, has been folded into the USA Freedom Corps, along with AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. The reorganization has helped the Peace Corps' efforts to recruit and place volunteers, many of whom are new college graduates, Kneedler said.

"Many folks who are going into the Peace Corps are on a path," she said. "This is an incredibly formative experience on that path."

She said that though applications didn't drop off after Sept. 11, there was a significant increase in the number of applicants who said they did not want to go to Muslim countries in the Middle East or Africa.

"We questioned people about that," she said. Recruiters try to resolve applicants' concerns and fears during the interview process, she said.

"The world is a scarier place now," Kneedler said.

The Peace Corps puts its volunteers through intensive training programs in the countries where they will serve, and takes every precaution to protect their safety, Kneedler said. Still, anyone who decides to live and work in a foreign country must be willing to endure a certain amount of risk.

Peace Corps volunteers operate as American ambassadors of sorts, and that role has taken on special importance in the post-Sept. 11 world, said Ellie Shirley, a Wake Forest senior who is awaiting her assignment to a teaching job somewhere in French-speaking Africa.

"I want to show that not all Americans have the 'us vs. them' mentality I've observed has increased since Sept. 11," Shirley said.

For Mary Cameron, a Clemmons town councilwoman who served in Turkey from 1965 to 1967, the Peace Corps' mission has become far more important since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the war in Afghanistan.

"If nothing else, Sept. 11 proved we don't know a thing about each other," Cameron said. "Anytime you can have any one-on-one exchange, you break down those barriers of ignorance."

Michelle Johnson can be reached at 727-7305 or at

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