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President John Kennedy established the Peace Corps soon after he took office in 1961. It was the time of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The new program gave Americans a chance to answer the call to service that the president made in his inaugural speech. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he said. “Ask what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy told Peace Corps volunteers that America’s image in the countries where they were going would depend largely on them.
“And if you can impress them with your commitment to freedom, to the advancement of the interests of people everywhere, to your pride in your country and its best traditions, and what it stands for, the influence may be far-reaching.”
On August 30, 1961, the first group of 51 Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Accra, Ghana, to serve as teachers. They had agreed to work for almost no pay. They would spend two years in Ghana helping its people and learning the reality of life in a developing country.
Most of the volunteers had just completed college. About half of them taught English or health care.
In the 50 years since then, more than 200,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers. They have worked in 139 countries.
The Peace Corps is a government agency that was created to promote world peace and friendship. There are three goals -- First, to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. Second, to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served. And third, to help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.
By 1966, there were almost 16,000 volunteers and trainees. This was the height of the Peace Corps’ popularity. It was also around the time when many young men were seeking an alternative to military service because of the Vietnam War.
Today, the Peace Corps has more than 8,000 volunteers and trainees in 77 countries. They work in agriculture, economic development, education, the environment, and health care. Some work in programs related to youth development.
The agriculture programs are designed to teach people how to produce food while protecting natural resources. In Thailand, for example, volunteers have taught farmers how to improve soil conditions. And in parts of Central Africa, Peace Corps volunteers have taught farmers how to raise freshwater fish.
60% of current Peace Corps volunteers are women. The average age of a volunteer is 28. But the ages of Peace Corps volunteers range from 18 to 86. Some Americans join the Peace Corps after they retire.
Today, 7% of volunteers are over the age of 50. And 19% are members of minority groups.
This year’s budget for the agency is $400 million.
Allegra Troiano is based in Costa Rica as a regional adviser for the Teaching English as a Foreign Language program of the Peace Corps. She says the way Peace Corps volunteers teach English has changed.
In the past, volunteers were placed in a classroom to teach English by themselves. But now, Ms. Troiano says the aim is to work with local teachers to provide what is known as co-teaching.
“In teaching English as a Second Language, the goal is to put Peace Corps volunteers in classes with host country national teachers. So they have established that this model of co-teaching is the most sustainable.”
She says the Peace Corps is currently expanding programs in countries like Costa Rica to meet growing demand for English teaching.
“It’s the way to communicate with the global world. So I think there’s a great need and I think there’s also a great desire.”