Peace Corps:
A Profile in Volunteerism

Courtesy of Peace Corps
Courtesy of Peace Corps

By Chelsea Trim
BU News Service

When John F. Kennedy spoke to the University of Michigan students about international volunteerism in 1960, the climate of the political and cultural world was much different than today. The Peace Corps, which was inspired by JFK’s call to service, was founded in 1961. As the world has evolved, so too, has the organization.

“I learned not only about living and working in a different country but also how I adapted to live in that country.  I think when I first came back to the U.S. after over two years in Jamaica I experienced what they call ‘culture shock,’” said Maureen Desabrais, a Chicopee, Mass., resident who served in the Peace Corps from 1979 to 1981.

Desabrais, who does social work in the HIV/AIDS field, went to Jamaica with the Peace Corps after finishing college. She worked as a teacher at a group home for girls and covered basic subjects such as science, English, and physical education.

“I think the biggest effect that the Peace Corps had on me was growing up, maturing.  When I left the Peace Corps I was a different person both physically and mentally. I felt truly peaceful with myself and who I was,” Desabrais said.

Kennedy, too, believed in finding peace through the work of helping others. In a 1961 speech he gave at the establishment of the Peace Corps, he said:
“For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps — who works in a foreign land — will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.”

Beyond the history of the organization that volunteers learned in training, Desabrais also recalled the Peace Corps displaying a picture of Kennedy in the Jamaica office.

Desabrais said that going to an assignment was difficult because it meant leaving the friends she made during training. “My Peace Corps group became my family, and the bond that you have is different than any other bond or relationship you would have with other family and friends,” she said.

Kennedy hoped to enlist 500 volunteers to the program in 1961. Over the years, the number of participants has ballooned. According to statistics provided by the Peace Corps, nearly 8,000 volunteers have come from Kennedy’s home state, Massachusetts, alone since the program began. Boston University ranks number 19 on Peace Corps’ 2013 Top Colleges.

Kennedy’s vision has had a lasting impact on Desabrais.

“I believe that my two years in the Peace Corps paved my way to become who I am today emotionally, professionally and personally,” said Desabrais.

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