En español | During a late-night campaign stop in 1960, presidential contender John F. Kennedy challenged University of Michigan students to "contribute part of your life to this country" by helping developing nations. One year later, as the first group of Peace Corps volunteers boarded a plane to Africa, President Kennedy bade them a personal farewell.
See also: Joining the Peace Corps.
As the program celebrates its 50th anniversary, it boasts more than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers who have left the United States behind to serve in 139 countries. And in 2011 alone, there are 8,655 volunteers and trainees — including 547 Latinos — who have fanned out across the world to share lessons on combatting HIV/AIDS, producing clean water, using technology and more.
The number of applicants is on the rise, with Hispanics contributing to that increase. The rise in interest by Latinos appears to have followed the tenure of Gaddi Vasquez, the Peace Corps's first Hispanic director, who served from 2002 to 2006.
Hispanics have shared their skills, talents and passion through the Peace Corps since its inception. Many who have taken on the 27-month assignment describe it as a rebirth or an experience that continues to shapes their lives. Four of them — including the father of Desperate Housewives star Ricardo Antonio Chavira, an astronaut and a couple who currently serve — share their stories:
Fran Tenorio, 65, and Richard Becker, 65
Serving in the Peace Corps had long been a fantasy of Fran Tenorio, a former school teacher, and her husband, Richard Becker, a former court mediator. It became a reality in May 2009 when the couple,arrived in El Sauce, León, Nicaragua.
After retiring, the longtime New Mexico residents, who have two children and four grandchildren, decided volunteering would be "a bridge between the world of work to the next phase" of their lives, Tenorio says. "[The Peace Corps] offered the opportunity to live more economically and to learn to adapt and become more resilient in our later years. [It] develops patience and flexibility, and living in another culture has helped us ease out of work-world pressures, yet still be active contributors." Tenorio's still amazed at how little cold water it takes to wash dishes, clean clothes and bathe. And, she says, "I doubt that from here on I'll ever be able to take for granted the simple act of getting in a car and driving away."
As Peace Corps volunteers, the couple, who already spoke Spanish, supported local agriculture-related projects in the areas of rural tourism and economic development. Their projects ranged from training new volunteers to distributing solar ovens. But with so many volunteers in their 20s, they took on an additional role, says Tenorio, who saw herself as a “role model, sharing some learnings from my past 50 years of working and living."
Tenorio and Becker, who returned from Nicaragua this summer, say they intend to ease back into the pace of life in the United States. They also hope to buy a home in Florida. While they currently have no other plans, they say they are not sure they will ever retire.
Joe Acaba, 43
From an early age, Joe Acaba heard his father speak of the importance of public service. And while at college, in his early 20s, he knew he wanted to join the Peace Corps. But he went to graduate school instead. That experience convinced him that he wanted to give back on an international level, says Acaba, who's of Puerto Rican descent. The Peace Corps provided that opportunity through an assignment in the Dominican Republic from 1994 to 1996. "Going to the Dominican Republic was not a huge change for me, but living there changes your perspective," he says. "We have a commitment to other people who are less fortunate." He still stays in touch with friends he made on the island.
The former school teacher and hydrogeologist says the Peace Corps experience proved an advantage once back in the United States. The skills he learned on the job, such as organizing projects, were invaluable when he ventured far beyond the international arena and sought out a new frontier: space. He became the first Puerto Rican to be a NASA astronaut candidate. In 2009, he flew to the International Space Station and is currently training for a 2012 mission, which means spending lots of training time in Russia. So knowing how to work with people from different cultures comes in handy, he says, adding that such skills can help in any job setting. "Being in the Peace Corps is definitely a life-changing experience," Acaba says.
Juan Antonio Chavira, 67
The Vietnam War was raging. Cesar Chavez was marching. But Juan Antonio Chavira, then 22 and a recent graduate with a degree in literature, "had no aspirations at all," he says. Well, maybe one: "I just didn't want to get shot at." Serving in the Peace Corps, he says, got him a deferment from the draft.
It was the first time Chavira had left the security of his south Texas Mexican American community. He headed to rural Kansas for a four-month training course that focused primarily on learning Spanish, which he already knew. What he hadn't been exposed to were other young people of different races and ethnicities. Then he got another surprise: when he arrived in Queromarca, Peru in 1966, the villagers spoke Quechua, an indigenous language.
For two years, he and other volunteers lived without electricity or running water, worked to improve potato production, planted 250,000 trees and learned Quechua. "We got out of it much more than we gave," Chavira says of the experience. And he wasn't just talking about the fact that during his stint in Peru, he met his late ex-wife, Elizabeth, a Peace Corps volunteer who was vaccinating cows in a nearby village.
The Peace Corps "gets you out of the box," says Chavira, who later became a prosecutor and judge in Bexar County in Texas. "It gives you a new way of looking at reality."
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