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Peace Corps

On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy invited his fellow citizens to dedicate two years of their lives to make peace with our neighbors around the world. With the launch of the Peace Corps, Americans who embrace the ideals of humility and respect can lend their expertise and dedication to meet the social development goals identified by partner nations.

Those of us who served in the Peace Corps were changed forever. Not only did our service offer the challenge of a lifetime, it showed us the spirit, determination, graciousness and humanity of peoples around the world. Commonly facing conditions of poverty, isolation and even repression, the communities and families who hosted volunteers embraced us with humbling generosity. These relationships taught us the fullness and value of other cultures and how those whom we had imagined to be “different” were actually just like us. We learned that we all are one.

Now we find ourselves back in our own country — a nation of immigrants — where a significant percentage of our fellow citizens seem to reject this vital lesson. We see reports daily of how the dignified people with whom we worked are vilified as undesirables or criminals. Returned Peace Corps volunteers can attest unequivocally that people from other cultures do not diminish our lives; they enrich them. Who doesn’t want hard-working, family-oriented, resilient new people in their neighborhoods? Those who come to us from other countries, just as our forefathers did, strengthen our towns, contribute to our economy, and offer us a bounty of wisdom, talent, and beauty. A 2017 report by the Department of Health and Human Services documented that over the previous 10 years refugees added $63 billion more to federal tax revenues than they received from federal government services.

The Peace Corps was founded on the idea of breaking down walls and building understanding. In its 58 years over 235,000 Americans have served as volunteers in 141 countries. There are currently 7,367 volunteers working in 62 countries in projects involving education, health, youth development, agriculture and the environment, all at a cost less than the Defense Department’s budget for military bands. There is even a “Peace Corps Response” program that offers shorter-term assignments of 3-12 months for those with specialized skills.

We can be proud that Montana has a history of national service to our country through the Peace Corps. Missoula can boast the highest percentage, per capita, of Peace Corps volunteers among metropolitan areas, and Montana ranks third nationwide in Peace Corps volunteers per capita. The University of Montana is one of a handful of universities offering a Peace Corps Preparatory Program for its undergraduates with a certificate in special assignment areas such as environment, health, education and youth in development.

There are many ways to honor the commitments that Montanans have made through the Peace Corps. You are invited to join the Western Montana Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, who have begun to assist Soft Landing Missoula, our local refugee resettlement organization, to co-sponsor the annual, community-wide soccer tournament held around World Refugee Day. This year’s day of soccer, children’s activities and a feast of ethnic foods will be held on June 16 at Fort Missoula Regional Park.

We all can help spread the very American message of welcome and inclusivity. One of the best ways is to get to know your neighbors better and to reach out to new residents in our community, especially those who may be recent immigrants. In these troubled, divisive times, we are called to take up the challenge of peace. Bringing about peace in the world starts right here at home.

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Jim Burchfield served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 1974-1977; his wife, Melissa MacKenzie, served in Costa Rica from 1981-1984.

Chris Siegler, served with his wife Jeannie in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, West Africa, from 1967-1969.

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