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Sally Jordan of Philadelphia holds a hand-stitched top from Guatemala, where she spent two years with the Peace Corps. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)

50 years after Peace Corps' founding, volunteers reflect

By Carolyn Davis
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

In 1961, the Berlin Wall rose, the Soviet Union detonated a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb, and thousands of U.S. military advisers went to South Vietnam.

 

That was the bitter backdrop as President John F. Kennedy created - 50 years ago this month - a brigade of young Americans to win over the world.

 

Those first Peace Corps volunteers were Kennedy's gentle emissaries to the world, armed with enthusiasm, a college degree, and motivations that ranged from saving the world to avoiding the draft.

 

A half-century later, the Soviet Union and the Cold War are no more, but the Peace Corps survives as an icon of U.S. public diplomacy.

 

"The legacy is partly the good work, the important work, that some 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers have done," said Harris Wofford, the former senator from Pennsylvania who worked with the Kennedy administration as one of the Peace Corps' early top officials. "Partly, it's the impact on those 200,000."

 

So far, those Americans - 7,260 from Pennsylvania and 4,590 from New Jersey - have volunteered with the Peace Corps in 139 countries. Today, 77 countries host 8,655 volunteers and trainees.
At 50, like most middle-agers, the Peace Corps has had victories and failures. More than 250 members have died; some were murdered, but most died from traffic accidents. Female volunteers have been sexually assaulted.

 

Critics say that some assignments are not well-defined or sustainable, and that volunteers have too few skills and too great a desire to socialize rather than strategize.

 

Still, volunteers have brought clean water and better health practices to remote locations; business ventures have been launched and schools built; English and HIV/AIDS prevention have been taught. Friendships have been made, misimpressions corrected.

 

The program's goals remain the same: Trained men and women help their host countries while giving locals a better understanding of Americans. After two years, volunteers return home to teach Americans about their experiences abroad.

 

Volunteers especially love that last goal. It gives them a reason to indulge in a favorite pastime: telling Peace Corps stories. (Click on their names below to hear the stories in the volunteers' own words.)

Kelly Henkler, currently working in Africa, took this photo of a mother and child. <a href="http://www.philly.com/philly/gallery/118901944.html">For more images,<b> click here.</a></b>
Kelly Henkler, currently working in Africa, took this photo of a mother and child. For more images, click here.

The 1960s

 

For a 28-year-old raised in a devout Catholic home in South Philly, joining the Peace Corps was a legitimate way to travel alone.

 

"Back then, you couldn't readily leave home as a single woman," says Sally Jordan, a 73-year-old Center City resident. "You could get married or become a nun."

 

Jordan served in Guatemala from 1967 to 1969 - her first job "was basically helping the schoolteacher out. We would count bottle caps under a tree with the little ones."

 

When she wasn't teaching, Jordan was learning what people needed and connecting them to resources.

 

"When I left, they gave me a party at the schoolhouse. I was bawling. Holy Moses, they gave me a medal."

 

--

 

As one of the first volunteers sent to Kenya - and one of a few African Americans in his group - Roland Johnson's job was to help resettle black Kenyans onto land acquired from white farmers after the country became independent in 1963.

 

"I felt I was being a pioneer," says Johnson, 71, who was in his mid-20s when he served from 1964 to 1966 north of Nairobi. Johnson lives in Mount Airy.

 

As a Lincoln University student, he was inspired to join by an older fraternity brother who was on the Peace Corps staff in Washington. Johnson recalls the discussions the two had about the timing of going abroad during the civil rights movement: "A lot of people had questions about why I, a black person, should do it."

 

Having taken part in protests and sit-ins, he thought a foreign service career would give him more tools to bring about social change.

 

Being a black American evoked mixed reactions from Kenyans. Some called him mzungu, the Swahili term for a Westerner. Others treated Johnson as kin and invited him to ceremonies most outsiders could not attend.

 

Before the Peace Corps, Johnson thought about going into law, then politics.

 

After seeing the impact schooling made in Kenya, he made a career of pushing for education reform at foundations in Cleveland and Philadelphia, and at international development organizations.

 

--

 

John Riggan was in the second group of volunteers to go to Kenya. Then 25, he helped establish communities for farmers and their families.

 

"It was a big job. I was so ready for a great challenge like that," says Riggan, 70.

 

A month after he was in Kenya, Riggan learned his father was dying of lung cancer - a message relayed through phone calls and telegrams. Riggan took the daylong journey home to Washington state, where his father asked him about Kenya for about eight hours and then died.

 

With his mother's urging, Riggan returned to his post and soon helped Kenyans develop 20 villages. After his first two years, Riggan went on to do other Peace Corps jobs, including leading a highly secret assignment in 1972 - evacuating volunteers from Uganda as its leader, Idi Amin, grew increasingly violent.

 

Kenya still lives within Riggan, whose home is now Mount Airy. Remembering his volunteer group singing the national anthem as they landed in Nairobi, Riggan takes a breath and brushes off his Swahili: "Ee Mungu nguvu yetu, Ilete baraka kwetu" - "O God of all creation, Bless this our land and nation."


The 1970s

 

Jane Behnke, a house cleaner from West Deptford, was interested in the Peace Corps long before earning an elementary education degree in college. But she never thought she'd be sent to Afghanistan to teach English to teenage boys.

 

"I never heard of the country until I got there" in 1970, she says with a laugh.

 

As a 22-year-old woman in a male-dominated society, she encountered unique experiences - like the intimate questions Afghan women asked her about how well-endowed American men were. From the start, Behnke, now 63, was advised to be wary in public - men would touch her. After that happened repeatedly, she decided to fight back the next time a man neared her derriere.

 

"I yelled at him in Farsi - 'I'm like your sister! You wouldn't do that to your sister. Don't do it to me!' " From then on, she wasn't bothered.


The 1980s

 

Brenna Synnestvedt and husband Chris Nunez cringed as their Peace Corps volunteer group sang "Kumbaya" while riding a boat to their South Pacific post in the Solomon Islands.

 

"Kumbaya," really? the couple thought.

 

"We didn't sing," says Synnestvedt. "We weren't there to be singing."

 

They were there, from 1984 to 1986, to be community development workers on Guadalcanal, site of the pivotal World War II battle.

 

The couple lived in a village whose closest hub of activity - an airfield, a farmers' market, and a school - was accessible by a rutted dirt road.

 

Because walking there took seven hours and boats were unreliable, the community wanted its volunteers to help them get a tractor and cart for public transportation. The answer was rooted in the coconut economy and the high price coconut oil fetched.

 

During their service, world events collided with the couple's personal lives.

 

Synnestvedt was in the capital of Honiara getting medical treatment for an infection when a Trans World Airlines plane was hijacked over Europe with her brother on it.

 

Nunez had to walk about 35 miles to join his wife. Then, for 17 days, the couple used only the Peace Corps office phone to stay in touch with relatives until Synnestvedt's brother was free.

 

The couple now live and work in Bryn Athyn. Synnestvedt, 56, works at a thrift shop and Nunez, 58, directs the Lord's New Church. Their 16-year-old daughter, Raika, thinks about joining the Peace Corps, even as she concedes her parents' experience already has affected her.

 

"I watch the news," she says. "My friends don't."

 

The 1990s

 

In some ways, living in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1990 to 1992 was easy for Sandra Voge. The West Chester native lived in a comfortable house with three bedrooms and a flush toilet.
"I didn't have the misty hills of Nepal that everyone's heard about," says Voge. "But I could get most everything I needed in the city."

 

She could see most anything in the city, too - like the bull that walked along one street, poking its head into food shops until it was given a nibble.

 

If bulls and bathrooms made her experience lighter, Voge's assignment as a university nursing educator highlighted the rough conditions of health care in Nepal.

 

"We taught our students to wash their hands after patient contact," says Voge, now 44 and a nurse practitioner living in Wilmington. "But we could only put a tiny piece of soap by the sink because if you put a whole bar out, it would go missing."

 

The nursing curriculum was good, but equipment wasn't always available. Voge was so frustrated at one point that she considered leaving: "The only reason I didn't quit was because I didn't want to be considered a failure."

 

Despite the difficulties, she came home at 26 with a greater appreciation of American medicine and a high regard for Nepalis: "Their normal is so much harder than anyone in the United States can comprehend."


The 2000s

 

Nadira Branch chuckles over her early reaction to being in Mali from 2003 to 2005. "It was Day Three and I was, like, OMG," she says. "Everything was hard."

 

Still, she knew she could handle her assignment as a health educator.

 

"I'm from West Philly - we're tough," says Branch, 31, of University City.

 

She graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor's degree in international politics, an achievement that celebrated her father, who was murdered when she was 10 and who had emphasized the importance of education. Branch now runs her own professional-development consulting firm in Philadelphia.

 

In Mali, Branch gained the trust of women through countless chats in the marketplace. Only then did they attend her classes.

 

Branch also arranged for youngsters with no money or connections to get American-style internships in the capital of Bamako.

 

She still gets phone calls from Malian friends. Branch misses them, misses her village, and pats her chest as she says, "I didn't come back the same, here."


Today

 

Kelly Henkler, a 23-year-old from Lansdale, serves in a rural African setting - in the dusty compound of the village chief's family - that echoes the original image of Peace Corps living. But there's no mistaking the passage of time: The chief has a TV and Henkler doesn't have to go far to use the Internet, which allowed her and friends back home to share a dance party over a Skype connection.

 

Henkler, on the phone from Senegal, is most proud of helping a women's group start a business using the beans, rice, millet, and peanuts they grow to make and sell a nutritious porridge.

 

That's a lifesaving meal. The children in her village have "big bellies, skinny arms." Still, she says, her village is fortunate that it doesn't have a "starving season" as other villages do.

 

Her host family has welcomed her and people trust her medical advice, giving Henkler confidence to pursue a career in medicine.

 

"I've learned a lot about how to relate to people. . . . I'm seeing Senegalese do things better than I ever could do them because I was willing to step back," she says. "I think it will change the kind of person I will be.

 

"It already has."

 


 

Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214, cdavis@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/carolyntweets

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