Celebrating the legacy of the Peace Corps | SierraSun.com

Celebrating the legacy of the Peace Corps

Katherine Morris, Sierra Sun

Eileen Knudson will never forget the day she decided to go into the Peace Corps.

“I was watching an episode of ‘I Love Lucy,’ and suddenly this commercial for the Peace Corps came on that pictured a starving Biafran child. I never got that image out of my head, and I realized that I wanted to help others in need,” Knudson said.

Knudson, who now serves as department head of the Tahoe Forest Hospice program, spent two years during the late ’70s working as a nurse and Peace Corps volunteer in the rural mountains of Ecuador. Her assignment was to improve the staggering infant mortality rate.

At times, she treated in excess of 100 patients per day. She delivered babies without a doctor around and gave people sutures by candlelight because the clinic she worked in was lucky to have electricity three days out of the week.

But for Knudson, the challenges are what made her time in Ecuador such a rewarding one.

“It was one of most wonderful, incredible experiences of my entire life,” she said. “I loved the language and culture I was exposed to — the people. I felt like I had grown a lot by the time I left.”

Knudson and two other returned Peace Corps volunteers shared their stories before an audience of 20 or so at the Truckee Community Center Tuesday evening, in hopes of inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.

John Ruiz, a Peace Corps regional recruiter who spent his term volunteering in Paraguay’s decrepit education system, began the evening with the “nuts and bolts” of the program.

Since the Peace Corps was founded in 1961, it has trained and sent more than 160,000 volunteers to over 130 different countries. Currently, there are close to 7,300 volunteers serving overseas in roughly 70 different nations.

“Ninety-seven percent of our volunteers have a minimum bachelor of the arts degree, however, we do accept people without a college degree if they have special skills and life experiences that can be useful to the program,” Ruiz said.

To qualify as a Peace Corps volunteer you must be at least 18 years of age, a United States citizen and in relatively good health. You cannot have any affiliation with military or government intelligence agencies, nor any financial or legal responsibilities, i.e. outstanding warrants.

According to Ruiz, the application process for Peace Corps takes anywhere from four to nine months, so people are encouraged to apply at least a year in advance.

Then, after one has successfully passed an extensive interview and been given a clean bill of health, the Peace Corps assigns a specific destination based on applicants’ regional preferences.

The Peace Corps Program is a 27-month commitment. The first three months include intensive language and culture training to prepare volunteers for living in their assigned country.

“I probably wouldn’t have gotten my job in Truckee without my Peace Corps language training because they were looking specifically for a bilingual nurse,” Knudson said.

“Anyone who learns another language and culture becomes a better person for the whole society because they often have a better understanding of life.”

Peace Corps also provides volunteers with both a monthly stipend that is just enough to live at the subsistence level of his/her community, as well as a readjustment allowance of $225 per month that is saved for volunteers for when they return to America.

When volunteers return, there are also many different employment and educational opportunities waiting for them.

Aside from the boost Peace Corps gives your resume, Ruiz stressed the personal benefits.

“I was more a Paraguayan than an American my second year. I was a community member. Everyone kept telling me to stay, that they loved me, and it was incredibly hard to leave,” he said.

For more information or to receive an application, contact the Peace Corps-San Francisco Regional Office at 333 Market St. Suite 600 San Francisco, CA 94105. Phone: (415) 977-8800 E-mail: sfinfo@peacecorps.gov Online: http://www.peacecorps.gov.