2011 marks the 50th year of one of the nation's most successful international aid programs, the Peace Corps. Established by President Kennedy on March 1, 1961, the Corps' reach stretches around the globe from the southern tip of South America to the remote islands of eastern Asia, continuing to bring people of all backgrounds together to promote peace, compassion, and unity.
A new release from The University Press of Kentucky, Voices from the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers by Angene Wilson and Jack Wilson, takes a personal look at the experiences of Kentuckians who served in the Peace Corps, featuring the oral histories of six returned volunteers with strong Kentucky ties who span five decades of the Corps' history.
The book is the ninth volume in a series of Kentucky oral histories entitled Kentucky Remembered: an Oral History Series. Both Angene and Jack Wilson served in the Peace Corps themselves. For this project, they conducted eighty-six interviews, shaping the many stories into a whole that links the individual to the collective--much as the Peace Corps does by its very design.
In the first chapter entitled, "Why We Went," the authors include oral histories to explain the motivation to service. While the Kennedy factor,Viet Nam, career preparation, Peace Corps commercials, international experience, prior community service, mentors, and practical idealism are examined as motivators, the oral histories reveal highly individual reasons for joining up.
For example, Martin and Patsy Tracy, who served in Turkey from 1965-1967, married during their sophomore year of college at Murray State. While spending time with international students, they were challenged to experience the relative poverty of the wider world.
As Martin remembers, "I had always wanted to have an international experience...I've always had a fascination with how other people live and a sense of adventure."
While Patsy admits, "Martin was more international than I was. I had a firsthand living experience with hard times. Martin was more middle class, and he wanted to find out what the world of service in a rural or poor international community would be like. It wasn't my idea; it was Martin's idea to explore the Peace Corps."
From the next decade, the Wilsons introduce us to Rona Roberts, who served in the Philippines from 1973-1975 and grew up on a 450-acre working farm on a dirt road in Wayne County, KY. When her mother became a school librarian, the many books that came into her house began Rona's fascination with travel. Accelerated by her mother's involvement in the Farm Bureau Women's German placement program, Rona became well-acquainted with a German family when her mother hosted one of the German students.
"Jump forward to the Viet Nam War era," says Rona. "I always had a stubborn sense about fairness and equity. And I believed strongly that women should be drafted if men were going to be drafted. I had a strong sense about service. I believed that national service was extremely important, and I still do."
Rebecca Roach, of Middletown, OH served in Liberia from 1988-1989. A farmer's daughter and Morehead State University graduate, she has always considered herself Southern. She explains a generational promise as part of her reason for joining the Peace Corps:
"We were raised Pentecostal and my grandmother always wanted a missionary in the family. When she conceived my mother, she dedicated her to missions. My mother never went on to be a missionary, but she really pushed me toward international travel," Roach says, though she adds that her mother was motivated by a belief that Rebecca had a gift for working with people.
Sarah Cross Oddo, who served in Jamaica from 1993-1995 cites meeting some returned Peace Corps volunteers as part of her motivation to serve. Born and raised in Lexington, KY, she majored in environmental geology and spent a summer working as a maid in Yellowstone National Park. There she had a roommate who was applying to the Peace Corps.
"When I was a kid I remember seeing the (Peace Corps) commercial where people were all fishing, and I always thought that looked like great fun. I thought I wanted to go to a village in Africa and fish with all the villagers," says Oddo. She also remarked that her family had always lived in the same house in Lexington, and that she had craved a rural experience.
Aaron Schraberg who served in China from 2004-2006, grew up Jewish in Kentucky. After receiving a BA in English with a concentration in creative writing from University of Kentucky, he was weighing his options: law school, a job, or leave the U.S. and see what's out there. Schraberg describes his thought process in the following:
"I really wanted to broaden my perspective, wanted to see what it was like to live in another culture. So, my thought process was: I'm young: I have many years to do graduate studies or begin working." Schraberg goes on to admit that he wanted some adventure and that a friend was considering signing up with him. An internet search provided him with more motivation as he read about the the program's mission and goals.
The Wilsons follow these Peace Corps volunteers through the other chapters about the application process, training, living conditions, the hardest issues faced, coming home, and the feeling that they are forever changed by the experience as "citizens of the world." There are also some excellent famous people stories along with charts of the interviewees and a list of the countries served by the Peace Corps since its inception. Middle-of-the-book photos allow the reader to know these exceptional people even better.
If you've been considering the Peace Corps, or just want an in-depth look at its 50-year legacy, Voices from the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers by Angene Wilson and Jack Wilson links the individual to the collective in a very personal way: through the words of those who served.
You can link to this book at www.wvxu.org.