The Peace Corps is being given the chance for a comeback. For 15 years interest in the agency has been declining. Volunteer levels are the lowest in 19 years. Only 5,400 volunteers are in service today; almost three times that many (15,000) enlisted in 1966. And on top of that the corps has been hit hard by recent budget cuts.
Now, thanks to Congress, the Peace Corps will become an independent agency. Many of its supporters say this could mean a revival of the idealism and energy which marked the early years of the organization.
In the Senate debate on Peace Corps autonomy, Sen. Charles H. Percy (R) of Illinois, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said: ''I feel that the Peace Corps, one of the great successes we have had, has been losing its identity. Autonomy, however, I think, will help the Peace Corps build a great esprit de corps as it begins its third decade of service in the developing countries.''
Efforts to strike the Peace Corps amendment from the foreign aid bill were defeated 258 to 155 in the House and 48 to 39 in the Senate.
The Reagan administration, meanwhile, although it opposed the move to separate the Peace Corps from ACTION (which also runs such programs as VISTA and Foster Grandparents), has its own revitalization plan: infuse private sector help. According to John C. Williams Jr., named to head this effort, the administration envisions a ''three-pronged program'' to (1) increase the number of returned volunteers entering private-sector jobs, (2) coax corporate personnel to join the agency by taking leaves of absence, and (3) design ways that the Peace Corps and private organizations can jointly serve the peoples of the developing world.
More immediately, however, the corps has felt administration policy through the budget ax. A $20 million budget cut this year has forced a termination of operations in three countries - Colombia, South Korea, and Ivory Coast. Then, during the fall, traditionally a peak period for enlisting volunteers, 8 of 11 recruiting offices were closed and 70 recruiters were laid off. Other country programs have been curtailed and the offices of Peace Corps Partnership and Former Peace Corps Volunteer Services have been closed.
The loss of staff and services has led to great concern within the agency. Says one middle-level staffer: ''There is serious damage being done to our ability to deliver the volunteers and services that we've been asked to deliver. Morale is very low among the staff members here.''
But Edward E. Alvarez, deputy director of the corps, sees the budget cuts as ''being done in an effort to get our own economic house in order. You cannot have good foreign assistance without a good, strong, stable economy.''
John Dellenback, former director of the Peace Corps under the Ford administration, explains the merits of independence: The marriage of the Peace Corps to ACTION was like ''putting apples and oranges together.'' They had different purposes, different recruitment processes. Also, overseas, the corps must be seen as separate from much of the rest of the US government, especially the Central Intelligence Agency. ''Peace Corps effectiveness calls for this visible independence. It (autonomy) will help this.''
Mr. Alvarez further details part of the administration plan. ''We are expanding our work with private voluntary organizations (PVOs) and other federal agencies that may very well enable us to enhance our effectiveness and also provide for more volunteers.'' This enables the Peace Corps to lend these organizations trained volunteers for work in countries where the Peace Corps has no permanent operations.
CARE Inc. is one of several PVOs that received guidelines for this part of the plan recently. George Radcliffe, director for overseas operations and programs, supports the plan and cites the ''mutual benefits'' in it: The private organization receives trained and skilled manpower while the Peace Corps places additional volunteers without support costs. ''They should be congratulated for this,'' Mr. Radcliffe says. ''It's very much in vogue with today's reduced-cost needs.''
Mr. Williams, who has been at the Peace Corps since September, already sees ''real progress'' in his new work. He is also encouraged by the Reagan administration's ''emphasis on voluntarism, on self-help.'' So many of the themes of the administration, he says, are themes ''which traditionally the Peace Corps has proven it can do and do well.''