THE US Peace Corps office in Boston, which traditionally recruits more volunteers than any of its 13 regional counterparts, is unusually busy these days. The corps, which will be three decades old in 1991, is poised for a new burst of growth. Peace Corps director Paul Coverdell terms it a ``very, very aggressive period.''
To some extent the placement of volunteers is following the path of the new democracies, in response to requests from their leaders. In June, 60 volunteers - three or four times the size of a usual first contingent - will head for Hungary. Another 60 will go to Poland. Czechoslovakia may be on line by fall.
Mr. Coverdell, a former state senator from Georgia, says he expects most countries of East Europe to have Peace Corps workers in place within the next few years.
``All have made some inquiries,'' he said in a telephone interview from Washington. ``I had originally thought this might be a five-year process. I didn't expect it to be five months. It's been very fast track.''
He says that Panama, Nicaragua, and a half dozen other Latin countries are also possibilities in the near future. The corps, he says, expects to enter more countries - 16 of them - in the next 18 months than in the last 18 years. He says 26 countries currently have requests in for volunteers. ``Things are coming at us so fast that we always seem to be somewhat behind in our ability to respond,'' he says.
Part of the slowness is monetary. The corps' current $165 million budget supports an operation of more than 6,000 volunteers which as of June will be in 69 countries. At its height in the late '60s the organization had some 15,000 volunteers on board. Five years ago Congress requested that the then current force of 5,000 be doubled by 1992. The new Bush budget for fiscal 1991 requests an increase of $16 million for the corps, the largest annual jump in 25 years.
Peace Corps officials say there is no shortage of applicants - about six per position. The search for a more diverse group of volunteers - in age, skills, and background - has necessarily broadened recruiting efforts everywhere. The Boston office, for instance, works not only with college campuses but with community organizations and minority neighborhoods. Much of the effort is to counteract the old image of the Peace Corps ``as kind of a luxury thing, something to do after college for two years before you begin your real job,'' says Boston spokeswoman Betsy Christie. Volunteers get living expenses, an adjustment allowance of $200 per month at the end of their service, and valuable travel and experience, she notes.
The Boston office has had numerous calls from people wanting posts in Eastern Europe. Assignments take such individual preferences into account but the corps makes no guarantees. Skills offered and needed, for instance, must mesh. ``We don't always have enough people waiting with the exact skills needed for a particular country,'' says Washington spokeswoman Paula Kuzmich.
The wait can be long. For Adele Salinger of Somerville, Mass., a mid-career candidate who applied to the Peace Corps two years ago, however, the wait proved ``a blessing in disguise.'' She had taught English in Malaysia and was on the list to go to China last summer when Chinese leaders suddenly canceled the Peace Corps program. In June Mrs. Salinger, who has been doing temporary office work to bide her time, will head for Hungary to teach English to high school children and teachers.
The range of skills offered by today's Peace Corps volunteers in such fields as health, agriculture, small business development, and environmental protection is broader than ever. Yet the top choice in Eastern Europe for the first wave of volunteers is decidedly for English teachers, says Coverdell. He says he expects more specialized Peace Corps volunteers to go in time. ``It's a resource issue but we could easily see a program in Poland for instance within a few years that ranged from 150 to 300 people.''
He concedes that Eastern Europe may not fit the usual third-world picture that most Americans associate with Peace Corps hosts. ``It adds a new dimension and not just geographically. Volunteers will be pioneers. They'll be head to head with a people that are very well educated but dramatically underresourced. These are people who have been deprived of communication, steeped in suspicion, and almost throttled out of the world for half a century. ... This is a very meaningful call, and I think the Peace Corps can make a very lasting contribution there.''
Mr. Coverdell insists that he thinks President Kennedy's original vision for the Peace Corps did not limit it to use by developing nations. ``My view is you start with the pursuit of peace and you don't put political, geographical, or philosophical boundaries around it. Any country that has a legitimate need and asks for the Peace Corps, I think, ought to be responded to.''