The Peace Corps at 30

'THERE is not enough money in all America," President Kennedy said, "to relieve the misery of the underdeveloped world in a giant and endless soup kitchen. But there is enough know-how and enough knowledgeable people to help those nations help themselves." Kennedy put those words into action 30 years ago when he established the Peace Corps. Its goals then, as now, were not only to help people in developing countries, but to promote better understanding between Americans and other peoples.

The report card, three decades and six presidents later, is a good one, with a check mark noting "has not reached full potential yet." Certainly the numbers are impressive: more than 5 million people taught to speak English; more than 300 textbooks developed; 14 million people benefited by water, sanitation, and health education programs.

Less quantifiable are the effects on Peace Corps volunteers themselves, the approximately 125,000 men and women who have served in 104 countries. Most have quietly blended back into American society, enriched by contact with another culture. Some have become prominent as ambassadors, business leaders, and elected officials. Presidential candidate Paul Tsongas, for example, proudly lists his Peace Corps service (Ethiopia, 1962-64) among his credentials.

Those looking for signs that the "selfish '80s" are giving way to the "compassionate '90s" can point to the Peace Corps. After slipping to a low of some 4,000 volunteers in 1983, the number has risen back to about 6,000. Funding is up, too: The $186 million 1991 budget, a $21 million increase over '90, is projected to grow to $200 million in '92.

Director Paul D. Coverdell would like 12,000 volunteers in 120 countries by late this decade. This will depend on continued support from the White House and both sides of the aisle in Congress. Such support is well deserved: The costs are tiny, especially when the millions of dollars' worth of volunteer work and private donations are added into the equation. And no one who has followed events among the Kurds or in Bangladesh can doubt that great needs exist.

The recent Peace Corps entry into Eastern Europe raised alarms that more-needy countries were being shortchanged. This concern needed to be voiced. But so far these moves seem to have raised the public profile of the corps, garnering new funds and volunteers for all regions.

Two new Peace Corps programs appear to be worthwhile and logical extensions of its work. "World Wise Schools" matches children in American classrooms with volunteers overseas. Peace Corps Fellows USA offers partial scholarships to returned volunteers in exchange for teaching in "at risk" US schools.

Today's volunteers are older (average age 31) and perhaps a bit wiser than the idealistic youths who set out in 1961. Many volunteers today are over 50; one 77-year-old recently headed off to Poland. And new projects such as environmental protection and small-business development have widened the corps's scope.

The volunteers and their expertise have changed. But the needs - and rewards - have not.

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