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Aug 2003 Kennedy Library: University of Michigan in Ann Arbor October 14, 1960.

10,000 students at the University waited to hear the presidential candidate John F. Kennedy speak. What they heard was an idea for a bold new experiment in public service.

The future President issued a challenge: how many of them, he asked, would be willing to serve their country and the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world? The reaction was both swift and enthusiastic, foretelling the future of a successful experiment in democracy and peace. Since 1961, more than 168,000 Americans have responded to this enduring challenge. And since then, the Peace Corps has demonstrated how the power of an idea can capture the imagination of an entire nation.

In his inaugural address of January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged a new generation of Americans to join ";...a grand and global fight tyranny, poverty, disease, and war..." Kennedy continued in his speech, "To those people in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves."

President Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. Three days later, Sergeant Shriver was appointed its first Director. 5,000 applicants soon took the first exams to enter the Peace Corps. Congress approved legislation formally authorizing Peace Corps on September 22, 1961, giving it the mandate to

"promote world peace and friendship" through three goals:

(1) To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers;

(2) To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and

(3) To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

By the end of 1963, 7,300 volunteers were at work in education, community development, agriculture, health care, and public works. In April 1964, the Peace Corps Partnership Project was established, a program that allowed Americans here at home to support and contribute to Volunteer projects overseas. By June of 1966, more than 15,000 Volunteers were working in the field, the largest number in the Peace Corps' history.

In July 1971, the Nixon Administration folded the Peace Corps and several other federal volunteer programs into a new federal volunteer agency called ACTION. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed an Executive Order that granted the Peace Corps full autonomy. At the close of the decade, more than 6,000 Volunteers were at work in the field and two returned Volunteers were elected to the United States Senate: Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who served in Ethiopia from 1962-64, and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who was a Volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1966-68.

On November 20, 1986, the John F. Kennedy Library hosted a special Peace Corps remembrance of President Kennedy, 25 years after his death. Peace Corps archives, including Volunteer journals and other artifacts, were donated to the library. And on January 20, 1989, a group of returned Volunteers, carrying the flags of more than 60 nations where Volunteers had served, marched in the presidential inaugural parade. Far from being nostalgic about the past, however, Peace Corps staff and Volunteers pushed ahead with the same dedication to improving people's lives, including a new emphasis on small-business development.

In 1982, the number of Volunteers fell to 5,380 — the lowest number since 1962 — but by 1985, funding was increased and by 1986, the number of Volunteers reached 6,264. In 1985, Congress established a goal of having 10,000 Peace Corps Volunteers serving in the field by 1992. On January 30, 1985, the first Peace Corps Fellows Program was established at Teachers College/Columbia University to recruit, prepare and place returned Volunteers as teachers in the New York City public schools. The Fellows Program soon expanded to include teachers of different subjects such as English as a Second Language as well as people interested in disciplines such as business administration, nursing, public health, and urban and regional planning. On September 28, 1989, Director Paul Coverdell announced the establishment of "World-Wise Schools," a new program that enables students in America's schools to correspond with Volunteers serving overseas in an effort to promote international awareness and cross-cultural understanding. By the late fall of 1989, more than 550 schools were participating in the program.

In October 1993, Carol Bellamy became the first returned Volunteer to be confirmed by the Senate as Director of the Peace Corps. On June 12, 1993, the first group of Volunteers left to work in China as English teachers. In August 1995, Mark Gearan was confirmed by the Senate as the 14th Director of the Peace Corps. He launched the Crisis Corps, a new program that allowed returned Volunteers to provide short-term assistance during natural disasters and humanitarian crises. By 1998, Crisis Corps Volunteers were serving in Guinea, Bolivia, Paraguay, Papua New Guinea, and other countries.

On April 30, 1996, the Peace Corps hosted the first Conference on International Volunteerism. Vice President Al Gore opened the conference with an address to the leaders of 36 volunteer organizations from 26 countries at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

With the new millennium approaching, the Peace Corps moved into its own headquarters building on 20th Street in Washington, DC. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Queen Noor Al-Hussein of Jordan, members of the President's cabinet, Members of Congress, dignitaries, returned Volunteers, and many friends of the Peace Corps joined together on September 15, 1998, to dedicate the Peace Corps' home for the 21st century.

"My parents, who had served as Volunteers in Kenya 25 years before I joined the Peace Corps, had absolutely no idea how much influence they had during their two years of service. They did not consider themselves exceptional Volunteers; they simply went to class, taught a variety of subjects in the best way they knew how, and loved the people they lived among. But returning with me to their village so many years later, they were struck by the undeniable realization that they had indeed changed people's lives." — Tara Elizabeth Beverwyk (Peace Corps Volunteer, Malawi, 1995-98)

More action like this, much more, will be required to bring peace upon earth. The mere fact that this program has not been killed gives us much Hope.


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