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Using Peace Corps Ideals To Bring Meaning To Your Volunteer Experience
December 31, 1969
Here at Volunteer Global, we hear this question pretty often: "What alternatives are there to the Peace Corps?" And we always give the same answer: "There are none."
After all, while there are many long-term volunteer programs including some that are even modeled after the Peace Corps, there is really no comparison. Most traditional volunteer programs have their participants complete long-standing projects by assisting with small areas of the project.
The Peace Corps, however, gives the Volunteers (yep, with a capital "V") the responsibility of designing, creating, and building their project as they also cultivate relationships with the locals from the very start of the project to years after it is finished. In this huge difference lies one of the major differences between the Peace Corps and traditional volunteering as you could read in Sarah's article about it.
So, although it is hard to compare traditional volunteer programs with the Peace Corps, I think that there are definitely values inherent to the Peace Corps that can bring meaning to your own volunteer project, whether it be a weeklong volunteer vacation or a year-long experience.
These values, which I have drawn from the three stated goals of the Peace Corps, can be used as a way to understand your volunteer efforts within the big picture or as a way to cultivate in yourself the attributes that are prized highly in Peace Corps Volunteers.
Peace Corps Goal #1: Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
Why it matters: When leaving for a volunteer trip, no matter how big or small, it is important to think of yourself in two major respects: as a pair of hands and as a skilled volunteer. Sometimes, volunteer projects just need an extra pair of hands, and sometimes, they need someone that will be able work without supervision to finish a project.
While different programs often ask you to focus one or the other depending on the task, it is important to realize that volunteer projects overall need more than just a pair of hands or even just a brain. They need a human--someone who is willing to put everything they've got into making sure that the project gets finished well. Even though you may not be as highly trained as Peace Corps volunteers tend to be in their program areas, you are someone who the organization can bounce ideas off of and someone who can help keep the volunteer coordinators, who are often overworked and exhausted, inspired to keep going.
Peace Corps Goal #2: Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on part of the peoples served.
Why it matters: This part of the mission statement definitely applies as well to people who are neither Peace Corps Volunteers nor Americans. When volunteering abroad, it is especially important to be aware of how others view you. Not only are you serving as a type of ambassador from your country, but for volunteers everywhere. What you do will be remembered indefinitely, whether for good or for bad.
All too often, voluntourism or even volunteerism gets a bad name from volunteers who do not see their actions as interconnected with the greater goal of sustainable worldwide change and progress. As a volunteer, you are never just a foreign worker; you are the example that the locals will always associate with the name of volunteerism or even with all foreigners.
When volunteering abroad, you must remember to be both hard-working and yet receptive to what the locals need and want to do for themselves. If they are not interested in a project or else the project harms some area of their traditional community, don't do it. Service is no simple matter of flying in to help someone else, but rather establishing a relationship in which two people help each other--and in fact, Peace Corps helps to cement this idea by referring to those in your host community as your counterparts, rather than locals.
Peace Corps Goal #3: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the Americans.
Why it matters: When volunteering abroad, you are getting a unique opportunity to help a culture from the inside out. Although you're still an outsider, you have the opportunity to forge relationships that your average traveler isn't usually afforded. Treasure this.
To me, one of the most important aspects of volunteerism is the ability for people to work together to help people. I love to see volunteering as a sort of eye-to-eye thing that happens when we recognize each other for the humans that we are and affectionately interpret what makes us so alike. When you volunteer, try not to see the people you work with as the recipients of your efforts but rather as those whom you can work with to make a better change. Volunteering should never be about services, but simply about service.
Can these components to the Peace Corps' mission statement, written half a century ago, do something for your own volunteer trip now? I hope so. This mission statement, tested through the Peace Corps' highs and lows, has served to promote peace and multinational relationships since its inception.
Volunteerism, therefore, while different from the Peace Corps in many respects, should serve as an extention of this mission. While the experience of the Peace Corps can't really be mimicked, its mission can be, wherever you go.
Photo Credits: National Museum of American History, Todd Huffman