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President Kennedy, Sargent Shriver and the Peace Corps

January 28, 2011

President Kennedy, Sargent Shriver and the Peace Corps:

My daughter, Sarah, has had a goal of working in the Peace Corps since she was a freshman in high school. In fact, in those days, she was planning to go straight after her high school graduation, until she learned that a pre-requisite for Peace Corps volunteerism is a college degree. (I was thankful for that!) Needless to say, I have a special ear out for news on this wonderful organization, and have a vision of serving in it side by side with her in the future.

A few short weeks ago, the first director of the Peace Corps, Robert Sargent Shriver, known as “Sargent,” or “Sarge,” to those close to him, died at the age of 95. His passing has prompted numerous programming on his contribution and on those who he inspired through his work. The Peace Corps, which started in 1961 with 500 volunteers, has grown to an incredible outreach program reaching 139 countries throughout the world, and has inspired over 200,000 people to volunteer. Volunteers work to educate children, help bring clean water to communities, aid in HIV/AIDS awareness, bring in information technology, and even help with business development. For many, the impact of time dedicated to the Peace Corps doesn’t end with their tour of duty. Amy Maglio and Patsy Mertz are two such examples. After her tour in 2003, Amy founded the Women’s Global Education Project, because she believes that everyone is entitled to an education, regardless of gender or economic status. Patsy volunteered with the Peace Corps in 2001, and then founded Ivory Coast Mothers and Children, working to increase health care in this area of Africa.

Shriver’s legacy lives on through the Peace Corps and all of the programs that volunteers fostered through their service with this organization. But Sarge didn’t limit his service to his work in the Peace Corps. In fact, he was selected by President Kennedy to pioneer this organization because he had a prior commitment to service and equality. In his young adulthood he had guided American students in work-and-learn programs and Europe. He later became president of the Catholic Interracial Council, which fought discrimination.

In 1960, when then-Senator Kennedy issued a challenge to students at the University of Michigan to serve their country and live and work in the developing world, a vision was born. In Kennedy’s presidency, this vision would ultimately become the Peace Corps. Shriver’s experiences had President Kennedy see him as the perfect candidate to design the Peace Corps. Shriver directed the organization for five years. With the change in leadership due to Kennedy’s assassination, he left this organization, but under President Johnson he continued to work to make a difference. His focus was working against poverty in America in programs such as Head Start, the Job Corps, and Volunteers in Service to America. It is evident that service, justice and equal opportunity for all were values that were central to R. Sargent Shriver.

In Kennedy’s inaugural address he said, “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves…” The words of Kennedy are just as significant today as they were then. The need to eradicate poverty, discrimination, slavery and torture seems to be growing rather than shrinking. Yet the task is not just for the new generations, for the young. It is one for all of us. Mr. Shriver embodied Kennedy’s words in his numerous programs to improve the quality of life for so many around the world, and gave us a guide toward accomplishing this goal. In 1994, in his commencement address to students at Yale, he said that the students should break mirrors.

“Yes, indeed,” he said. “Shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own.”

Robin Damsky

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