In February 2020, the global pandemic grounded much of the world, including the 7,000 Americans serving overseas with the Peace Corps. They returned to the United States, including 40 men and women who call Maine home, many working virtually with their host country counterparts to complete unfinished projects. This is all about to change, as the organization prepares to redeploy volunteers to 60 countries worldwide as soon as health, safety and security standards are in place.

President Kennedy greets students after the Oct. 14, 1960, speech at the University of Michigan in which he first called for the Peace Corps. Kennedy officially established the agency March 3, 1961. Abbie Rowe/National Archives

Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps 61 years ago, on March 3, 1961, 240,000 Americans (2,200 from Maine) have served abroad in the fields of agriculture, environment, health, economic development, information technology and education. They wanted to make a difference in the lives of those living in developing countries but, in the process, they too were changed and returned home committed to service at the community, state and federal level and with a new world perspective.

As a health volunteer with the Peace Corps in the small African nation of Togo, I saw firsthand the impact of grassroots engagement at the village level to improve the basic health of men, women and children. Working side by side with community leaders, health committees made up of local citizens took responsibility for building latrines, digging wells and improving irrigation systems. Teachers, nurses and midwives were introduced to health education curricula, and they soon included them as part of routine patient care and required courses at the elementary and junior high school levels. Although the two-year experience was transformative, it is not the projects that I remember but the relationships that were forged, many lifelong, while living, tackling issues and solving problems in a culture so unlike the one I had left.

Our world is very different today than it was in the early 1960s; however, Peace Corps continues to meet the moment and stay relevant as volunteers respond to the requests from foreign nations for aid. Reforms to many programs in the areas of agribusiness, youth development and the environment have been adopted and new ideas for incorporating racial justice and equity in agency activities are advanced. In testimony last October to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, acting Director Carol Spahn said, “The Peace Corps is committed to playing a critical role in global COVID-19 response and recovery by returning volunteers to work in partnership with underserved communities around the world.”

New authorizing legislation is another step in the direction forward. The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (HR 1456), currently in the U.S. House of Representatives, includes provisions to improve in-service and post-service health care for volunteers; extend the critical mission of a Sexual Assault Advisory Council; enhance several volunteer financial benefits; expedite applications for volunteers wishing to return to service after COVID brought them home, and raise opportunities and respect for Peace Corps service.

While it has been over 20 years since Congress reauthorized the original Peace Corps Act, in September 2021, Democrats and Republicans on the House Foreign Relations Affairs Committee came together and passed HR 1456 by a vote of 44 to 4. Now, the full House and Senate must act.

As Peace Corps prepares to return volunteers overseas again, it is important for the Reauthorization Act to pass in the House and move to the Senate for a final vote. On behalf of the almost 400 members of the Maine Peace Corps Association, I ask you to contact our elected officials in the House, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and request that they pass HR 1456, as soon as possible.  Also, please urge Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, both strong supporters of the Peace Corps, to actively join the House in supporting bipartisan passage of the legislation. Now, more than ever, Peace Corps is ready to meet the moment.

On Friday, March 4, 2022, at 12:47 p.m., this op-ed was edited to reflect the correct date on which Peace Corps volunteers serving overseas returned to the United States because of the coronavirus.

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