Sixty years ago today, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signed an executive order that established the Peace Corps. “I’m hopeful that it will be a source of satisfaction to Americans and a contribution to world peace,” said President Kennedy during the signing.
The Peace Corps is a small independent agency administered by the United States Government. Its field workers are volunteers, by and large educators and specialists in agriculture, health, community economics and youth development. They work to improve the lives of people in underdeveloped or underserved areas by increasing productivity and encouraging self-reliance.
In its own words, the agency’s mission is “to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and to help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.”
Indeed, more than anything else, the Peace Corps was designed to foster mutual understanding between Americans and other cultures of the world. Trained volunteers were—and still are-- sent to live and work in developing countries around the world, helping the host country meet its need for skilled workers. And because they lived among the local population, they learned—and still learn-- about the people and culture around them. At the same time, the local people working and living alongside them get to know Americans as people not much different from themselves.
As of June 2019, some 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries. Each volunteer serves a two year-period, with no pay except for a stipend to cover their room, board, and a few essential expenses.
Their mission has adapted with the times and needs of the people they serve. Today, due to COVID-19 restrictions, no Peace Corps volunteers are stationed abroad. Their work in the field will continue once the pandemic is under control.
“To me, that's what the Peace Corps is all about - the impact that simple acts of service can have across borders, generations, and time,” said President John Kennedy’s grand-nephew Joseph Patrick Kennedy the third. “It's a lesson I carry with me every day.”