50 years of service
The Peace Corps will celebrate its 50th anniversary on March 1. President John F. Kennedy established the program by executive order in 1961. In the half century since, nearly 3,000 Georgians and 200,000 Americans have volunteered around the world in 139 host countries. Today, volunteers are serving in 77 countries.
Georgians serving in the Peace Corps
In a bamboo hut by the sea, Graham Gaines listens as villagers walk by. "Bula" they yell, the Fijian greeting and wish for good health. They invite him to share a meal, but it's a customary invitation Gaines politely declines.
"Roosters are crowing," he wrote in an e-mail last week. "My roommates — mosquitoes, frogs, mice and crabs — are running around my hut looking for dinner. I lay in my hammock listening to music or reading or watching my roommates looking for dinner, which is sometimes each other."
It's a life far removed from the one 28-year-old Gaines had just a short time ago as a graphic designer in Gainesville. But it's a life, as a Peace Corps volunteer, he chose in pursuit of a more personally fulfilling career.
The number of Americans making the same decision is increasing, as many leave life behind and give at least two years of service in a foreign country.
Last year, the Peace Corps saw an 18 percent increase in volunteers from Georgia, which sets the state above the national increase of 13 percent.
Officials say it might be because the Peace Corps has expanded its reach, adding opportunities in Colombia, Indonesia and Sierre Leone and reopening a program in Madagascar.
But there's also a less quantifiable force at play.
"There is this idealist generation that's still out there," said David Leavitt D'Agostino, spokesman for Peace Corps' Southeast Region. "... And that's the beauty of Peace Corps — it allows you to apply that idealism in a practical way."
That drive has been a part of the Peace Corps experience for a long time and was at play in Kim Kennedy's decision to volunteer in 2003.
The Gainesville woman was 27 and had a good job working as a kitchen and bath designer. But a professor had planted the idea of the Peace Corps in her mind years before, and the itch wouldn't go away.
"I was just at a point in my life where I needed something different," she said. "I needed a change. And I had always wanted to go somewhere else, experience another part of the world. I had always wanted to make a difference."
It took her more than two years go get approved for the program and be placed. She left the "country preference" slot on the application open and ultimately ended up in the Romanian city of Caracal.
She spent two years teaching English to fifth- through 12th-graders and living in the poorest part of a city still grappling with the aftermath of a revolution.
She was already a tolerant person, she said, open to other cultures and new experiences. But the Peace Corps offers an eye-opening experience, and for Kennedy, seeing Romanians so full of spirit despite such hardship gave her a new perspective on life.
"We have so much here that we tend to give up easily and move on to something else," she said. "But some things are worth not giving up on."
But personal growth in the Peace Corps often comes at a price, and Leavitt D'Agostino said the program isn't for the thin-skinned.
"Not everyone is made for Peace Corps," he said. "Suddenly you're in this situation that forces you to be a local leader because people do look up to you."
One of the most obvious and pressing challenges is communicating.
Gaines is learning more of the language every day, but he said communication is more than just a matter of vocabulary.
"We have very different lifestyles and two years is not enough time to completely bridge the cultural gap," he wrote. "I feel very integrated in my community but I'm not Fijian. There will always be misunderstandings, and although this usually has a negative impact on my work, I can look past it pretty easily and just laugh at the immersion of our two cultures."
For Kennedy, a draw of the Peace Corps was the two-year timeline, which gave her a greater opportunity to integrate.
"One year in a country is enough to scratch the surface," she said. "... After a year you've learned the language enough to get along socially so the second year you can learn a lot more about the people."
Gaines is an environmental research manager in Fiji where he is in charge of three main projects on the island of Viti Levu in a small community of 23 traditional Fijian bures, or huts. He's helping plant trees to improve the village's soil and watershed, raising crabs in a pond until they are of marketable size and restoring the shoreline from erosion. He also teaches an environmental club twice a week to a group of eighth-graders.
There's a lot of downtime in Fiji, Gaines said, and finding uses for that time has been a challenge.
Each morning he walks a mile to his garden where he tends to taro, spinach, papaya and bananas. In the afternoon, he'll work on the village projects and fish from his canoe. At night, he will gather with the men to have yoqona, a traditional drink, and share stories.
The villagers here grow crops and fish, but few sell goods or earn an income. Still, they're content.
"People are cooking and smoke from their fires are in the air," Gaines wrote from his hut by the sea. "... Villagers are running around outside laughing and laughing and laughing because they are so content — they have everything they need."