April 14, 2002 - New Haven Register: Senator Dodd and Congressman Shays recall Peace Corps

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Senator Dodd and Congressman Shays recall Peace Corps

Read and comment on this story from the New Haven Register on Senator Chris Dodd and Congressman Chris Shays (shown together in the photo above) and their experience in the Peace Corps at:

Volunteering makes a comeback*

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Volunteering makes a comeback

Bush's call for service resonates with a new generation

Lolita C. Baldor, Register Washington Bureau April 14, 2002

WASHINGTON In the fall of 1965, young people were protesting the escalating war in Vietnam and college senior Chris Dodd was wrestling with his future. Graduate school had zero appeal and he'd already hitchhiked across Europe.
Then he had "an illumination."

A year later the 22-year-old English literature major was living in a two-room thatched hut in a tiny northwestern barrio in the Dominican Republic, learning how to raise pigs and building a one-room school.

For Dodd, now a three-term U.S. Senator from Connecticut, and thousands of others in the 1960s, committing two years to President Kennedy's fledgling Peace Corps answered their yearning for public service. The volunteer agency was just a few years old, and participation peaked at more than 15,000 members the year Dodd began his stint near the Haitian border.

Three years later and more than a continent away, Chris and Betsi Shays were tutoring students in the Fiji Islands to help them get through high school.

In no uncertain terms, the eight-term U.S. House member says, "the Peace Corps changed my life totally. I was very compelled by Kennedy's call for Americans to serve their country and I've always had that as a desire."

Today, 41 years after its birth, the Peace Corps is one of a growing number of volunteer agencies seeing a resurgence in the wake of Sept. 11. Promoted and expanded by the Clinton and Bush administrations, government volunteer opportunities now range from the Peace Corps' overseas experience and its domestic sibling AmeriCorps to terrorism prevention groups and senior citizen assistance programs.

Interest had fallen off during the 1980s and 1990s, but agency activists insist that the attack on America has sparked a renewed desire to help make the world a better place.

Just ask Yale University senior Andrew Lind, who is waiting for his final Peace Corps approval and could go to Eastern Europe or Central Asia later this summer.

"There's so much going on in the world right now, you want to help the situation," said Lind, a philosophy major who traveled to Taiwan on a university internship last year. "The events of Sept. 11 brought home to me how much need there is out there. You feel like the world is becoming more polarized and it's worrisome, and you want to be part of a solution."

For Connecticut College senior Anna Pakenham, the events bolstered her desire to "apply the things I learned and give something back."

"Sept. 11 affirmed my convictions," said Pakenham, who leaves for her Peace Corp assignment in Micronesia a day before her graduation this spring. "There are a lot of problems between America and other countries, a lot of negative feelings toward Americans, and the Peace Corp is a positive program."

New York-based Peace Corp recruiter Bruce Dury said applicants have repeatedly written that Sept. 11 was a motivating force in their decision to apply. "They say that since 9-11 they're really thinking about their lives and want to do something," he said.

In the State of the Union address on Jan. 29, Bush issued his own call to arms, urging Americans to serve their country for at least two years or 4,000 hours over their lifetimes.

"If you want to fight evil, find somebody to help," Bush said last week during a speech in Bridgeport. "I used to like to say that government can hand out money, but what government cannot do is put hope in people's hearts. That requires a loving, hopeful person to do just that. And I view AmeriCorps and Senior Corps as ways to tap into the great talent and strength and compassion of America to help people in need."

But those who serve say the experience did as much for them as it did for the people they helped.

"It was a real maturing experience I ran my own shop, setting my own day, managing all these projects," said Dodd, who helped the desperately poor rural village start a maternity hospital, expand a youth center, build a one-room school house and set up family planning programs. "The trick was to find out what their needs were and work yourself out of a job."

For both Dodd and Shays, the Peace Corps provided direction and shaped the philosophies that affect how they govern.

"You do so much thinking, you re-evaluate what you think is important," said Shays, who battled his own Republican party to preserve funding for AmeriCorps. "And you learn to accept people and be comfortable with the poorest of the poor. I consider myself a fiscal conservative, but I believe the government has a role in how to deal with the human condition."

It was, said Dodd, "a seminal experience for me. Without it I don't know what I'd be doing. It convinced me that this is what I wanted to do with my life I really wanted to be involved with people."

The recent spotlight on volunteerism has had measurable results, according to officials in the recently reorganized USA Freedom Corps, which is now the umbrella organization for the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America.

"We noticed a very significant increase in interest after the State of the Union," said Peace Corps spokeswoman Ellen Field. "And now that time has evolved, the number of actual applications is steadily increasing."

Indeed, inquiries about the Peace Corps shot up 131 percent in the two days after the State of the Union compared to the same time last year. And over at AmeriCorps, the average number of weekly online applications alone has shot up 70 percent.

In all, hundreds of thousands of Americans have called, written, gone to the web sites and sought applications to do everything from tutor a needy student to train for an emergency response team.

In addition to the more established and well known Peace Corps and AmeriCorps programs which require a year or two of full-time work in a faraway country or region, there are now hundreds of smaller programs that students, seniors, and part-timers can join.

Officials insist that the dizzying array of volunteer programs are not competing for the same small pool of candidates. Instead, they said the wider variety of programs attract different populations, enabling more people to get involved.

According to officials, there are 2 million students and educators involved in the school-based Learn and Serve program; more than 50,000 Americans in AmeriCorps; 480,000 in Senior Corps; and about 7,000 currently training or serving in the Peace Corps.

Connecticut residents are also answering the call. More than 7,500 seniors are serving as either foster grandparents, senior companions or in the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program; 2,200 are in the Learn and Serve program; 997 are in AmeriCorps, and 123 volunteers are overseas either working or training in the Peace Corps.

On the local level, AmeriCorps members tutored about 30 at-risk middle school students through the Summerbridge New Haven program, and seniors work as foster grandparents at the Life Haven Shelter for battered women.

The biggest problem this year will be getting the federal funding needed to support and expand the growing network of programs that cost over $1 billion. While Bush touted his USA Freedom Corps in Connecticut to the cheers of local and federal officials, it will be harder to squeeze funding out of Congress.

Bush is asking for an additional $290 million, primarily for the AmeriCorps and Senior Corps programs, which are currently funded at$738 million.

And with lawmakers facing a growing deficit, the House and Senate will be hard-pressed to come up with the money in light of the other national security, health care and other social service needs.

Lolita C. Baldor can be reached at lbaldor@nhregister.com and (202)737-5654.

©New Haven Register 2002

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