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JFK's Vision: The Peace Corps Then and Now

Mar 02, 2011

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, a government agency dedicated to promoting peace and friendship around the world through volunteerism. Learn about the beginnings of the Peace Corps and the important work it's doing today.

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By Douglas Fehlen

Peace Corps Week years 50th anniversary volunteerism service developing countries United States America President John F. Kennedy

'Americans Are Willing to Contribute'

John F. Kennedy, campaigning for the presidency in October of 1960, made a late-night speech at the University of Michigan that would have a lasting impact on our country and the world. In the address to 10,000 students, the president-to-be called on individuals to commit themselves to helping people in the developing world. Kennedy cited the problems of the day, stating, 'I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.'

In the following year as President of the United States, John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps as a federal agency. The international volunteer organization was created to provide Americans with the opportunity to devote two years of service to people in other nations. At the same time individuals were completing civil and humanitarian projects, they were also expected to help promote friendship and goodwill between nations.

Peace Corps Week years 50th anniversary volunteerism service developing countries United States America President John F. Kennedy

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Five Decades of Service

Over its existence, the Peace Corps has been instrumental in helping to address major global crises while improving America's standing in the world. The 1960s saw the agency carrying out its first projects in poverty-stricken areas of Ghana, Tanzania and other nations. By the end of the 1970s, the organization had more than 6,000 professionally trained volunteers at work in the developing world.

The 1980s marked an important era for the Peace Corps; as part of its work, the agency began focusing on small business programs in poor nations and also introduced the World Wise Schools initiative, which featured overseas volunteers connecting with U.S. classrooms to promote international understanding. In the 1990s, a new program called Crisis Corps was launched to provide short-term help for areas affected by humanitarian crises and natural disasters. This proved a vital initiative in the 2000s as the Peace Corps responded to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and domestic disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

Peace Corps Week years 50th anniversary volunteerism service developing countries United States America President John F. Kennedy

Legacy Continues Today

These undertakings only begin to strike the surface of all the Peace Corps has done to help improve our world. To date, more than 200,000 Americans have joined Peace Corps programs in 139 countries across the globe. This includes 8,655 current volunteers who are today serving in 77 countries. And thousands of new positions created for 2012 are currently being filled by eager volunteers of all ages and backgrounds.

From environmental initiatives to English teaching programs and information technology ventures to drinking water projects, the Peace Corps is carrying out vital work that's improving the lives of people. And if five decades of history are any indication, the agency will continue to adapt to meet the needs of an ever-changing world. At this 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, it only seems appropriate to reflect with appreciation on the legacy of John F. Kennedy's words from that October night.

Learn how CU Boulder became the school with the highest number of undergraduate alumni serving as Peace Corps volunteers.

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