In 1971, fresh out of college, I followed a dream that had been percolating since JFK had ignited the youth of this country with his famous call to Ask not what your country can do for you; Ask what you can do for your country. I answered my job offer from Peace Corps Washington in blithe fashion. They called me on a Friday afternoon with a position in the Kingdom of Tonga... Um, Tonga?? Never heard of it... and that is NOT where I had wanted to go. I had wanted to go to the Ethiopia or Afghanistan, somewhere "exotic" and "foreign."
Who knew then that I would be opening such a wide door to knowledge, adventure and such an opportunity to learn while serving? Who, at 21, looks that far into the future?
I taught high school art. It was an odd assignment for Peace Corps, but was a course required by the New Zealand Board of Education. Most Tongans, at that time, tried to go to university in NZ. I taught in the capital city of Nuku'alofa, lived in a bamboo hut with a tin roof, had no hot water, and rode my bicycle everywhere I went on the island of Tongatapu. I taught 450 students a week on a 25-cents-a-week budget. But, what a wonderful three years it was! (Yes, I extended for an additional year).
As a Peace Corps volunteer, you offer service, friendship and knowledge to your local host community, but you bring back so much more to your own community. The third goal of Peace Corps, aside from importing knowledge and sharing American culture, is to bring the world back home by "helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans." This is what I have striven to do in the 30-odd years since I left Tonga. I have worked hard to bring the world to the students in Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District through outreach projects, hands-on learning and travel.
Peace Corps has recently initiated the More Peace Corps program. More Peace Corps is a national outreach and legislative campaign to build public support for a reinvigorated Peace Corps. One of the campaign's central goals is to double Peace Corps in size and budget by its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Currently, the demand for volunteers exceeds supply; more than 20 additional countries have requested volunteers and existing programs need greater numbers. However, the number of volunteers presently serving - 8,000 -- is half the total from four decades ago. Think about the astounding success of the Peace Corps, which has been managed on a shoestring budget of $331 million, less than the cost of one day in Iraq. It deserves recognition and an increase. What could happen if the resources matched the need? This is one of the goals of More Peace Corps, to reenergize the early promise of national service meeting global needs.
Is it a goal of mine to go back? Yes, it is! ...and maybe this time I will get to go to Afghanistan or Ethiopia. I would love to be able to teach young girls who are kept out of the education process because of local prejudices, and local economies that require girls to work at home.
Check out the Peace Corps. You can go online to www.peacecorps.gov, or if you are more adventurous, their toll free number is (800) 424-8580. Just say that Petulisa sent you.