Exactly 34 years ago, I was learning Guarani in a chicken coop/classroom in rural Costa Rica, preparing for Peace Corps service in Paraguay. A year earlier I was a college senior at Plattsburgh State University experiencing mild regret over my choice of major. While my Accounting, Nursing, and Business major friends were knee-deep in five-figure salary job offers, my BA in Geography was more like a recruiter repellant.
Fortunately for me, after I had spent a summer on a service project in a rural Ecuador farming community, the Peace Corps decided I was worth the risk and offered me an Agricultural Extension assignment in Paraguay. I jumped at the offer, even though I was not entirely sure where Paraguay was.
Yeah, I know. A Geography major …
During my two years in a remote tropical village, I like to think I made a difference in people’s lives by teaching vegetable gardening and soil conservation. However, I know that the people I lived and worked with had an enormous impact on me. To this day, they serve as role models.
Depending on the season, many of my neighbors would leave their house at 5:00 am for an hour-long commute on foot to their fields where they would begin working just before the sun came up. After lunch, they would lie down in the shade until about 3:00 pm when the temperature dropped to a more bearable 102 degrees. After this siesta, they would continue to work until sundown before arriving back at home at 9:00 am.
They would do this for weeks at a time, resting only on Sundays. Their motivation for working such long hard hours was largely to provide food and clothing for their families. Sure, they dreamed of some day owning a car or a television, but it was the day-to-day needs of their children that they struggled to meet.
Back then the Peace Corps and VISTA were both part of ACTION, the federal agency charged with promoting volunteer service at home and abroad.
VISTA was modeled after the Peace Corps and the two programs share a lot in common. They both are based on the same programmatic principles of sustainability and community involvement. The volunteers live at the same economic level of the people they serve.
Statistically, both AmeriCorps VISTA and the Peace Corps have roughly the same number of volunteers currently serving, and equivalent numbers of alumni – Peace Corps has just over 200,000, and VISTA is quickly closing in on that number.
And most importantly, both programs demonstrate in a very personal way that Americans care about the most vulnerable members of society both at home and abroad.
As the Acting Director of AmeriCorps VISTA, one of the best parts of my job is administering the oath of office to new VISTAs. I am always reminded of my own swearing in to Peace Corps, 34 years ago, and how that experience has put me on a life-long path of service.
Congratulations to Peace Corps on their 50th anniversary.
Paul Davis is the Acting Director of AmeriCorps VISTA.