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Editorial: Improving others' lives

When President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps in 1961, supporters saw it as a way to counter notions of the “Ugly American” and “Yankee imperialism” by sending volunteer emissaries into Africa, Asia and other post-colonial nations then viewed as crucial footholds in the Cold War struggle between communism and the free world.
The Cold War is history, of course, but as Tuesday’s Salisbury Post article about Peace Corps volunteer Ryan Lesley illustrates, the agency remains focused on its mission of uplifting lives in faraway places and presenting an experience of Americans that contradicts the stereotypical view that we are a self-absorbed, celebrity-obsessed nation more interested in “American Idol” and sports than helping Third-World people better their lives. Lesley, who grew up in Salisbury and graduated from Wake Forest University, might have chosen a post-college path that would have afforded him creature comforts like indoor plumbing and reliable electricity. Instead, he has braved disease and discomfort to plant trees in Cameroon, secure textbooks and increase the supply of potable well water. Rather than hearing “Yankee go home,” he’s greeted with open arms by villagers who want to have their picture taken with him.
While expending trillions on the machinery of war, we discount the value of outreach programs such as the Peace Corps, which often has been a political punching bag and a budgetary afterthought. Richard Nixon once claimed it would be a haven for draft dodgers, while other naysayers scoffed at the notion that college students could improve living conditions in underdeveloped regions. Today, it has sent more than 190,000 volunteers, young and old, to 139 countries. It has accomplished this with modest financial support. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks alerted the nation to growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East, President Bush vowed to double the organization’s size. That goal hasn’t been met, largely because of lack of funds. The budget request for 2008 includes $334 million for the Peace Corps, up from $319 million. Compared to the costs of the war in Iraq, that’s a pittance and a worthwhile way to help rebuild good will abroad.
Along with providing monetary support for international volunteer programs such as the Peace Corps (and domestic ones like Americorps and VISTA), we also should encourage the spirit that feeds them, particularly among the young. Volunteerism declined in 2006, according to federal statistics, with 26.7 percent of the population participating in volunteer activities. While that decline may be a statistical blip, it was most significant among teens. That’s something to consider as some school systems, including Rowan-Salisbury, phase out community-service requirements for high school graduation. While volunteerism by its nature has to be voluntary, not required or coerced, young people often need a nudge to experience the satisfaction of helping the homeless or rebuilding a neglected playground.
From faith-based organizations to nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross, opportunities for service abound. Young people should be encouraged to participate. They don’t have to join the Peace Corps or journey to Cameroon make a difference. They can do it in their own community.

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