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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Peace Corps director sees resurgent interest

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

The number of Americans volunteering to serve in the Peace Corps rose to 7,700 people working in 72 countries this year, a 29-year high for the federal agency, director Gaddi Vasquez said during a Honolulu visit.

Vasquez said the Peace Corps has seen a steady increase over the past three years in the number of volunteers signing up for a two-year stint. He said the agency draws people who are passionate about helping others who "are not content to be spectators."

"They want to be in the process of helping shape a new world," he said. He said some issues have changed over the years but volunteers still work in education, agriculture and now also focus on AIDS education, information technology and environmental preservation.

He's hoping to build awareness about the 43-year-old corps, fighting stereotypes that the agency is only a place for young recent college graduates. He said the average age of a volunteer has increased to about 29.

He said recruitment applications are up 10 percent for this year. "Americans have responded in record numbers," he said.

Vasquez is in Honolulu this week to speak at fall graduation ceremonies for Chaminade University of Honolulu. The son of migrant farm workers of Mexican descent, he has served in the volunteer agency's top job since January 2002.

President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 to promote world peace and friendship. In its heyday in the mid-60s, the agency had 15,000 volunteers working around the world.

This year, Vasquez said the budget has risen to $318 million, up from $275 million when he started nearly three years ago.

And he said the agency actively recruits retirees and couples to serve as volunteers.

He would like to see the Peace Corps reflect more of the diversity of the nation. "We need to look like America," he said and he's happy to see more minorities joining. He noted a 30 percent increase in the number of Asian-Americans joining in recent years.

But he knows there's room to grow. On a recent trip to Morocco, someone he met there told him: "You don't look like an American." He assured the people there that Americans come in all colors.

But he also acknowledged the economic difficulty among many minority families. As the first in his family to graduate from college, he felt some pressure. "Your family wants you to go out and get a job and help your siblings," he said.

He said interest in serving increased after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and it has has remained strong.

Vasquez acknowledges that the assignments can come with some risk. During his tenure, there have been no major crimes resulting in death but he said staff in eight countries was evacuated for various reasons. He said the safety and security of volunteers remains a top priority.

He said the agency accepts about one-third of those who apply. And he said education is still the most needed skill.

Vasquez noted that 1,200 volunteers have come from Hawai'i over the years, with 21 currently serving. "That's a great number for a small state."

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.