A unique success story

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan -

At his presidential inaugural on Jan. 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy famously told his fellow Americans to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country.

Among the responses to that challenge was the creation of an army of American volunteers, deployed around the world on a seemingly quixotic mission of promoting global peace and friendship.

Aaron Williams told me he was just 11 at the time of Kennedy’s inaugural address. By the time Williams reached adulthood, the organization that Kennedy called the Peace Corps was up and running in several countries, including the Philippines.

Williams, who has visited the Philippines several times in various capacities, returned to Manila last Nov. 1 for a weeklong celebration of the 50th year in the country of the US Peace Corps. It was his first visit here since being picked in 2009 by President Barack Obama as the new global director of the organization where Williams once served as a volunteer.

“It’s extraordinary to serve as PC director during the agency’s 50th anniversary,” he told me the other day. “It’s a privilege and an honor to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Sargent Shriver, in commemorating this unique American success story – the Peace Corps.”

* * *

There were bumps along the way, from the moment US lawmakers proposed the creation of volunteer organizations in developing countries in the 1950s until JFK, as president, unveiled his proposal. Among those who opposed the idea was his opponent, Richard Nixon.

But overall this has truly been a success story. And while among the early criticisms of the program was that it reinforced the image of the meddling, imperialist Ugly American in certain countries, the image created elsewhere, including in the Philippines, has been of the friendly, helpful American.

It probably helps that the Peace Corps goes only to countries where its volunteers are invited. Next month it will start deploying volunteers in Tunisia, upon the invitation of the new government, bringing to 78 the number of countries where the Peace Corps currently operates. There are PC members in Jordan and Morocco, where the oldest volunteer, at 86 years old, ended her service last year. That left two 81-year-olds – a man and a woman – as the oldest in the corps. In the Philippines, several of the volunteers are in their 60s.

Williams told me the ages in response to criticism that Peace Corps volunteers, a number of them fresh out of college, are too young to be teaching others.

They certainly are old and expert enough to teach their native language to foreigners. Williams said about 40 percent of their volunteers are engaged in training teachers in English proficiency – something that is currently needed badly in this country.

That kind of mission brings to mind the Thomasites, that first shipload of 500 American teachers who arrived in Manila on the USS Thomas in August 1901 and gave the country free public education. The deployment of that army of teachers helped erase ugly memories of the Philippine-American War and put Filipinos on the path to embracing the new colonizers.

The Peace Corps program in the Philippines, Williams told me, is “one of our greatest in the world.”

* * *

It was the second to be set up, in October 1961, after the one in Ghana. Today, the Philippine program is the Peace Corps’ second largest in the world.

I asked Williams if volunteerism wasn’t dying in the US, with all of the problems the country now faces, and if the war on terror has complicated the work of the Peace Corps.

Peace Corps volunteers were sometimes called “missionaries of democracy.” That smacks of Operation Enduring Freedom and the new thrust of Washington to link US foreign aid with democratic reforms.

“The world is a more complicated place these days,” Williams observed.

He prefers to call Peace Corps volunteers “ambassadors of goodwill” – Americans whose volunteer work make them understand the world, and who help the world understand America better.

The Peace Corps operates independently of the State Department and the US Agency for International Development. But Williams concedes that in the course of carrying out its mission of empowerment at the grassroots, the Peace Corps could be enhancing democratic participation and strengthening democratic institutions.

* * *

Williams was a high school teacher in Chicago when he first heard Kennedy’s pitch for volunteerism among Americans.

The son of a World War II veteran, Williams had no role model in his family for volunteer work. Asked back then why he wanted to join the Peace Corps, he would reply, “I wanna do something different.”

“It was the best decision I have ever made in my life,” he told me. “We always have to do more about our fellow human beings.”

The friendship and support he encountered as a Peace Corps volunteer were beyond measure, he said. Simply learning a new language (in his case, Spanish) prior to immersion in a new culture is a life-changing experience. “You grow as a person,” he said.

“As I have traveled the world, I have been impressed by the Volunteers, past and present, who had the transformational experience of serving in the 139 countries where we continue to pursue our goals of world peace and friendship. This distinct opportunity has been my most treasured experience as director,” he told me.

He met his wife in the Peace Corps, and they have apparently inspired others. One of their two sons, aged 28, has been doing volunteer work in Central America for the past 27 months, joining the corps before Williams became its global director.

Perhaps the children got the spirit of volunteerism, Williams said, “by osmosis.”

He was pleased to see volunteerism in the Philippines, and was “deeply impressed” by Sister Eva Fidela Maama, president and founder of Our Lady of Peace Mission at the Aeta resettlement and rehabilitation site in Sitio Gala, Barangay Sacatihan, Subic, Zambales, which he visited last Saturday.

The number of countries where the Peace Corps has volunteers is down to 77 from the 140 in its first year in 1961. But Williams said the corps has returned to certain countries such as Indonesia and Sierra Leone, and he sees no slowdown for the Peace Corps in the next 50 years.

In the 21st century, he said it is even more important to build bridges of understanding among nations and cultures. And he is confident that there will be no lack of Americans volunteering to help others overseas.

Volunteerism in America is “still very much alive,” he told me. “It has withstood the test of time.”










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