OLYMPIA - About 75 people gathered Sunday afternoon in the Longhouse at The Evergreen State College to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.
And what better way to stir up memories than with an international potluck? Attendees brought dishes that represented their country of service, such as pumpkin curry from India, peanut soup from West Africa and manila clams with ginger, soy sauce and spices from the Philippines.
In her welcome remarks, Sen. Karen Fraser joked that she came to the event because it was “probably the best food in town.” And while she didn’t serve in the Peace Corps, she thanked folks for their service and urged them to contact members of Congress about proposed cuts in funding for the federal agency that dispatches volunteers to developing countries.
“This is really a program that changes the world, and changes the people who are in it,” Fraser, a Thurston County Democrat, said.
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The Peace Corps was established March 1, 1961. It grew out of an impromptu presidential campaign speech by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, who was addressing about 5,000 students at the University of Michigan. He challenged them to contribute two years of their lives to help people in the developing world.
Dr. Al Guskin, former chancellor of Antioch University and a member of the first Peace Corps group to travel overseas, was a graduate student who witnessed Kennedy’s historical speech.
During Sunday’s event, Guskin recalled how several civil-rights events, including the Greensboro sit-ins in North Carolina and supporting rallies and student marches around the U.S., were taking place at the same time.
“It was a sense of a generation saying, ‘We want to make a difference; we don’t want to be the quiet ones,’” he said. “This was our generation beginning to make a difference.”
More than 200,000 people have served in the Peace Corps. The organization offers volunteer projects in 77 countries.
“The oldest volunteer is 86, and she’s in Morocco,” said Caitlin McKee, 26, of Olympia, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 2007-09 and now works as a regional recruiter for the organization.
Skip and Judy McGinty of Olympia were fixed up on a date while they were Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone, West Africa, during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In July, the couple will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
Besides helping them find each other, the Peace Corps gave them a deeper appreciation and interest for other cultures and international affairs, they said.
“I think it just opens your eyes to the commonality that we all have,” Judy McGinty said.
“I think, like most people, we got a lot more than we gave,” her husband added.
Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 firstname.lastname@example.org