Today I rise to celebrate service – specifically the dedication of Americans volunteering in the Peace Corps, which this week marks its 49th year of connecting committed volunteers with meaningful work around the globe.
There are a lot of ways to give of our selves. We donate food. We donate money. We donate time. But the Peace Corps takes community service – global service, really — to another level, with volunteers committing 27 months to improve the quality of life in developing countries.
Some projects focus on agriculture; others business. Some improve health, while others emphasize education or the environment, but all programs build a unique international relationship with a spirit of volunteer service at its core.
As chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I recently saw one program up close during a Congressional delegation I led to Morocco, which is an active Mediterranean Partner country in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Meetings with local government officials there were informative. And the briefings from the embassy staff were important. But the time we spent with a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Aitourir (ITE-oo-reer) was nothing short of inspiring.
The Youth Development Program there run by Peace Corps Volunteer Kate Tsunoda (tsoo-NO-duh) with help from local community volunteers is giving children from kindergarten through high school critical education, language and art skills.
Inside a small community center, below a library still in need of dictionaries and elementary school books, we sat down with a group of young men — some in college, some recently graduated. In a part of the world where unemployment tops 15 percent, these are the people one may see as most susceptible to recruitment by extremists, but not these men. They spoke of dreams that included higher education, better jobs, and a transforming their local towns.
These men credit the Peace Corps program for empowering them and building their language skills. I credit the Peace Corps for something even greater — forging international understanding, something the Peace Corps has excelled at now for 49 years in 139 countries through 7,671 volunteers.
On the other side of town, several members of our delegation visited a start-up small business, the brainchild of retiree and Peace Corps volunteer Barbara Eberhart, whose second career is dedicated to empowering the women of Morocco.
The group visited a fabric and embroidery shop developed by a community of Berber women aided by a microcredit loan and Barbara's guidance and unbounded energy. These women, unable to read or write and essentially marginalized in Moroccan society, have formed a cooperative where they create fine embroidered goods and sell them in local markets. Their small business not only provides desperately needed income, but gives these women a stronger sense of themselves, their community and hope for their future and that of their children.
With Peace Corps volunteers coming from all backgrounds, ages and various stages of life, this program is as diverse as our country. The local citizen collaboration inherent in all Peace Corps work helps build enduring relationships between the United States and Peace Corps partner countries.
The Peace Corps invests time and talent in other countries, but it pays dividends back here in the United States as well. Those who are taught or helped by Peace Corps volunteers are likely to have more favorable opinions of the United States. More than that, many of the volunteers themselves are inspired to public service upon their return to this country, some becoming governors and Members of Congress, including our own colleague and fellow Helsinki Commissioner, Senator Dodd of Connecticut.
I left Aitourir thinking Kate was the exemplary Peace Corps volunteer with her welcoming smile, passion for service and genuine love for the Moroccan people. But aware of the success of so many other Peace Corps programs around the world, I know Kate is one of many volunteers — all of whom would have left as great an impression.
The Peace Corps is a program that works. Volunteers year in and year out continue to fulfill the Peace Corps mission of bringing training and education to interested countries and strengthening understanding between Americans and our neighbors in the global community. Congratulations to the Peace Corps for 49 remarkable years. I look forward to its continued success.