On October 14, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy gave a speech to students at the University of Michigan in which he challenged them—future doctors, technicians and engineers–to further the cause of peace by living and working, for a time, in developing nations as a service to their country.
Five months later, on March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order officially establishing the Peace Corps within the U.S. State Department. Today, we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of that proclamation.
The primary goals of the Peace Corps are threefold: to help people in interested countries meet their need for trained volunteers, to help promote a better understanding of Americans by those served and to help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans. Since 1961, more than 200,000 people have heeded that call to service, volunteering in over 139 countries.
This year, the Smithsonian honors the accomplishments of the Peace Corps by celebrating its volunteers and the people they serve during the 2011 Folklife Festival. The Peace Corps program is designed to bridge cultures and foster greater understanding by promoting awareness and appreciation for the countries in which Peace Corps volunteers have lived.
Once volunteers return home from their 27 months of service, their lives are forever changed, often requiring some blending. When Jason Bowers, program coordinator for the Peace Corps Program, returned from his years of service teaching in Slovakia, he moved to New York, where he found and visited lived in a small Slovak community in Queens. "I was able to live both of my lives, my American life and my Slovak life, by attending cultural events, visiting restaurants, bars or stores that were owned by Slovaks," he said. "I was able to really participate in the third goal by bringing my experience back to other Americans and also to Slovak Americans who themselves may not have been back to their mother country in a number of years."
Bowers was also able to share his experience with his parents who were not able to visit him in Slovakia, but got a taste of what his life was like there while visiting him in New York. That, he says, is the essence of the Folklife Festival. "It's a great opportunity for anyone who has ever been connected to Peace Corps, whether directly themselves as a volunteer, or for parents, for families, or even children of volunteers, to share some of that experience," he says.
Today, the Peace Corps is still active in 77 countries around the world, with volunteers focusing their efforts in the fields of education, health, business development, the environment and youth development, among others. "One of the goals of Folklife is to help our public better understand what Peace Corps volunteers have done during the past 50 years and also to better understand the cultures worldwide with whom Peace Corps volunteers have been interacting and working," said James Deutsch, program curator for the Peace Corps program.
Bringing together past and present volunteers with many of the people from other countries with whom they have served, visitors are invited to join in the festivities and enjoy musical and theatrical performances, craft demonstrations, food and cooking demonstrations, dancing and hands-on activities for the entire family.
As celebrations for the Peace Corps semicentennial continue throughout the year, President Kennedy's initial message still rings clear —"I think Americans are willing to contribute," he said. "But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past."
Update: March 3, 2011: This post was updated to correct an error and to add additional information.