Frank Zappa once famously asked “Who needs the Peace Corps?” but apparently a lot of people have needed it in the decades since the 1968 release of the Mothers of Invention album “We’re Only in it for the Money.”
Founded by President John F. Kennedy in March 1961, the iconic organization that has helped developing countries the world over is celebrating its 60th anniversary during a global pandemic that has suspended operations for more than a year.
Even with international operations in flux, local chapters of Peace Corps alums are making a difference in their communities through civic engagement at home.
“At Desert Doves our mission is to continue working for peace, understanding and well-being with an emphasis on bringing the world back to southern Arizona,” said Katy Tucker, co-president of Desert Doves, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Southern Arizona, a nonprofit organization based in Tucson.
The Desert Doves, a member organization of the National Peace Corps Association, is a group of roughly 500 Peace Corps alums who have settled in Tucson and bring their sense of philanthropy and service as they continue their mission in southern Arizona.
Tucker estimates the nonprofit distributes $4,500 to $5,000 a year in grants that range from $500 to $2,000 per project.
One of the draws to the Tucson area for RPCVs is the Coverdell Fellows Program at the University of Arizona, which provides funding to Peace Corps volunteers for post-graduate degrees. The program has brought alums from across the generations, from those who served during the Kennedy administration to the young members currently serving during the recent global pandemic that shut everything down in March 2020.
“I had four months of service left when we got evacuated globally,” said Bailey Hollingsworth, Desert Doves co-president and youngest member. “There have been evacuations plenty of times before, but nothing like a global pandemic evacuation.”
Hollingsworth, 26, was in the Republic of Moldova from 2018 to 2020 working as a health education volunteer when the Peace Corps started bringing people back to the U.S. He estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 volunteers worldwide were suddenly evacuated and many of them did not get a chance to say goodbye to communities where they served.
“When I got evacuated, there was a whole big ordeal,” he recalls. “The U.S. embassy and the Peace Corps director of the country had to negotiate a deal with Moldovan government to open the airport again and have special flights out.”
Hollingsworth believes the same dynamic played out throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, as more and more countries shut down for the safety of their people. Fortunately, he was close enough to the end of his program that he received his certificate of completion for his service.
Since service is in his blood, Hollingsworth returned to Arizona and immediately went to work in Winslow as an EMT, commuting from Tucson for 72-hour weekend shifts serving the Navajo Nation that was “getting hit pretty badly” with the coronavirus.
After one summer, he returned to UA to work on his master’s degree in public health, but he has not ruled out signing up for another round of service some day.
The Early Days
The Peace Corp Hollingsworth signed up for was a far cry from the early days of the program.
Shortly after his inaugural speech wherein President Kennedy called on Americans to serve the greater good by asking not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country, he signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961.
Within days, Kennedy appointed R. Sargent Shriver as the organization’s first director. Shriver established programs in 55 countries with more than 14,500 volunteers. Since 1961, more than 240,000 Americans have served in more than 142 countries, according to the Peace Corps website.
Phil Lopes served in Colombia in the early days from 1961 to ’63 and was director of the program in Ecuador in the late ’70s. He said that in the beginning, volunteers did not necessarily have specific roles in their host countries, but usually joined the Peace Corps for adventure or as an alternative to going to Vietnam as a soldier.
Now, he says, roles are more specialized and host countries will ask the Peace Corps to provide volunteers with specific talents and abilities.
“In the early days, while we didn’t know what we were doing, we just did it because it was an adventure,” he said. “Volunteers later were much more focused on how this might help their careers.”
Likewise Ford Burkhart, who served in Malaysia from 1966 to ’68, was one of the early participants who signed up and set off into a world that was still largely unknown to the American people.
The Peace Corps prepared him by teaching the local language, in his case a dialect of Malay spoken by Muslims in the poorer sections of the country, but once he arrived in the country he realized learning one language was not enough.
“I went to Malaysia where 25 languages are spoken, and most of them are Chinese dialects,” he said. “There’s one language that no business man ever learns, and that’s Malay, the language of the poorest peasants. People were stunned that we came in there speaking Malay.”
Since he was only taught Malay in his training, Burkhart says he had to learn Chinese on the fly while he was in country.
His language skills improved even more his first Christmas in service when he joined a two-day trip by longboat to a small village in Borneo, where he learned the Diack language in order to give a speech at a going-away party.
“That shows you the kinds of stuff that we did,” he said. “And we just did it because that’s who we were. I think we brought that with us.”
But serving in the Peace Corps was not always seen as a good thing in host countries that were wary of the intentions of Americans bringing service. At times, those on the receiving end of American largesse would think the purpose of the Peace Corps was to spy on them.
“Whenever people asked me if I was a spy I told them ‘no’ for three reasons,” Hollingsworth said. “There are rules for the CIA: They are not allowed to pretend to be priests, politicians or Peace Corps volunteers.”
Suspicions usually turned quickly to gratitude for selflessly helping communities with basic services, such as water and agricultural projects or bringing health care to remote villages. Most volunteers assimilated with the families that took them in, creating relationships that have lasted for decades.
Desert Doves Vice President Susie Qashu served in Argentina from 1993 to ’94 and Chile from 1994 to ’96 a few years after the ouster of Agusto Pinochet, who took over the country in 1973 via an American-backed coup d’état that deposed Salvadore Allende.
“We changed the image of Americans,” Qashu said, adding that years later, that was confirmed when she was visited by friends she had worked with in conjunction with the National Parks in Chile.
“The most heartfelt thing that I heard 25 years later was [from] one of my friends who said, ‘Because of you, my whole attitude towards U.S. citizens changed,’” Qashu said. “On the ground, that’s kind of who we are, but it had meaning 25 years later to me.”
Still Busy Today
Back in Tucson, Desert Doves hosts monthly membership meetings for about 40 “regulars,” and social gatherings featuring food from their host
countries every other month.
“Generally, our biggest piece of business is giving away money to the Peace Corps partnership project,” Tucker said. “I think one of the most amazing things about that is the opportunity to meet people who ran the gamut of Peace Corps, right from when it started in the early ’60s up to folks who just came back.”
The group’s biggest fundraiser of the year is at the 4th Avenue Street Fair, where volunteers help feed vendors from a hospitality cart. The money made by the volunteers goes to funding grants. Tucker estimates the Desert Doves has given $49,000 since 2011, for community projects in 21 countries around the world. Projects have included a health center clinic renovation in Ghana, a hammer mill in Zambia, and compost latrines in Belize as well as community projects in Southern Arizona.
Given the state of the Peace Corps during the pandemic, Tucker said donations this year will be focused on local organizations such as the Community Food Bank, Family Housing Resources, Flowers & Bullets, Literacy Connects and Owl and Panther, which helps refugee families assimilate in the Tucson area.
“Those are all significant projects, because many of our Desert Doves volunteer with those organizations or they’re involved with those organizations,” Tucker said. “So there’s a really strong thread of community service that runs through the Desert Doves.”
On a national level, the Peace Corps has been an organization that has consistently received support and funding from across the political spectrum, so it continues to receive funds through the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act that will grow to $600 million annually by the year 2025.
“The Peace Corps has always had broad bipartisan support in Congress,” Lopes said. “The National Peace Corps Association has some great examples at npca.org about the specifics of the bill that’s going through Congress.”
To celebrate its anniversary the National Peace Corps Association is holding a virtual conference at the end of September that will focus on the future direction of the organization in the wake of the global pandemic and in the context of world events.
A report titled, “A Community Report on How to Reimagine, Reshape, and Retool the Peace Corps for a Changed World” can be found at www.peacecorpsconnect.org.