Celebrating 50 years of Peace Corps
At about 1 PM, in the patio and courtyard of the Museum of American Art in downtown Washington, DC, just a couple of blocks from the White House and behind the majestic building of the Organization of American States, two tents were finally raised in place to shelter our group from forecasted inclement weather that, fortunately, did not materialize.
An impressive display of posters with pictures and stories of Peace Corps Volunteer activities throughout the years welcomed the participants as they streamed in, young and old alike. There were 70 year olds from the first groups to arrive in Chile in 1961, and 30 year olds who served in the last group that left Chile in 1998. Each Volunteer who attended was given a copy of the freshly edited publication “The Peace Corps in Chile; 1961-1998”, soon to be available online on the National Peace Corps Association website.
True to form, the menu began with classic empanadas washed down with rich Chilean red and chilled white wine and accompanied by recordings of those old Chilean tonadas sung by the Huasos Quincheros. About an hour into the reunion, as more Volunteers showed up and the reencounters after many years of separation began to create a happy din, Peter Walsh, a Volunteer who served in Valdivia in 1964, played the National Anthems of Chile and the United States on his accordion as the groups sang along. The Chileans present were duly impressed that so many gringos actually knew the words to their national song.
It was a wonderful afternoon of meeting and greeting people we knew and worked with many years ago, some of whom we had not seen since leaving Chile. We had great fun sharing memories again with Volunteers from our PC Chile group, including Ron Bodinson, John Hager and Blanca, Carl Gallegos and Brenda, Jerry Dillehay, Ron Billings and Carmen, Lee Baker and Suzie, Millie Wetterberg, Kerry Mills and Pete, and Willie Goldsmith.
It was also a great pleasure to reunite after many years with Volunteers who served, and whom I became close to, when I was on the staff of the Chile Peace Crops program from 1976-79: Connie Mohlis, who helped develop the chinchilla reserve near Salamanca in northern Chile, Sean Keagan who served in a farmers coop in Hijuelas north of Santiago, Raoul Gagne and Paul Randolph who were professional natural resource specialists working to better manage Chile’s water and forest resources, Christine MacNaughton who was one of Augusta Crino’s star Volunteers in the rural health program, Gary and Elaine Gepford who contributed modern approaches to physical education training and of course Linda and Floyd Thompson who contributed so much to the design of visitor facilities and environmental education programs in national parks.
A Chilean buffet was set up, featuring ceviche, pastel de choclo, chicken and beef pinchos, and several salads including ensalada Chilena. As the dessert of fruit mousse and fresh fruit was served, the speeches began.
First, Joe Keyerleber greeted the Volunteers on behalf of the first group of Volunteers who went to Chile in 1961. He reminded everyone of what it was like to be the first to join up for something as novel and exciting as the Peace Corps. And, he read a greeting from Father Theodore Hesburgh, who was intimately involved in training and supporting those first Volunteers to go to Chile, and who continues to meet annually with these Volunteers in spite of his advanced age and delicate health. Hesburgh’s greeting ended with a very personal message to the Volunteers:
“Each and every one of you has a personal story to tell about your time in Chile. You helped Chile grow, and at the same time your experience led to your personal growth and that of our nation. Because of you and your service in the Peace Corps, we are a society more aware and sensitive to the broader world around us, and this contributes to world peace. Thank you for your service in the Peace Corps. Don’t ever forget why you went, and always cherish and share what you brought back with you.”
Representing the last group of Volunteers to serve in Chile, Christina Machion Quilaqueo spoke about the many cultural and personal links Volunteers maintain with Chile and Chileans well past the end of their Peace Corps service. She married a Chilean and like so many others, has a child who is bilingual and bicultural, “…where celebrating Dieciocho is just as routine as celebrating the 4th of July; where eating empanadas is a ordinary as having a burger; and where hopping on a few planes to vacation with abuelita and tata is way more fun than going to the Jersey shore.” She ended her greeting citing Ambassador John O’Leary who, in 1998 while talking to the Peace Corps staff in Santiago said:
“The US can be proud of what the Peace Corps has contributed to Chile, but none of it would have been possible if Chileans did not open your arms and your homes to welcome these North American Volunteers. The marvel of the Peace Corps experience worldwide is that Volunteers return to the United States saying they will never be able to repay what they received, and the citizens of countries where Volunteers served say they will never forget what the Volunteers contributed to their country. The Peace Corps has helped broaden the United States’ view of the world, and I trust the Volunteers have given Chile a better understanding of the United States.”
Christina ended by addressing directly the Ambassador of Chile: “On behalf of all the Peace Corps Volunteers that have served in Chile, I would like to express our heartfelt gratitude through you, Mr. Ambassador, to all the Chilean people that we worked, lived, and shared so much with us while we served as Volunteers in your beautiful country, our adopted home.”
Representing the State Department, Jason Vorderstrasse, Chile Desk Officer, read a greeting from the Department, which included another quote from Ambassador O’Leary, who said in 1998 in Santiago: “The best friends that Chile has in the United States are the 2,500 Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Chile, who proudly tell all who will listen, “I worked for the Peace Corps in Chile”.
The Chilean Ambassador, Arturo Fermandois, then congratulated the 220 returned Peace Corps Volunteers who had come to Washington to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps. He noted that between 1961 and 1998, over 2,500 Volunteers had served in Chile, an impressive number to be sure, and that for so many to come together for this reunion was a testimony to the commitment Volunteers feel for the Peace Corps and the country in which they served, in this case, Chile.
Fermandois stated that over the past 50 years, since the first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Chile, great advances had taken place in the Chilean economy, and he recognized that Volunteers had made significant contributions in many of those sectors where the most development has taken place. He mentioned specifically how PC Volunteers had assisted with the relocation of the entire town of Trovolhue, affected by the earthquake of 1960, and the role the Peace Corps played in the introduction to Chile of salmon, now a leading export product. He thanked the Volunteers and the United States for what the Peace Corps did in Chile.
The Ambassador recognized the intercultural learning and integration that takes place with participants in partnership services like the Peace Corps, and noted humorously that it was clear that Peace Corps Volunteers were “risk takers”, given that so many had married Chileans, according to him a very risky undertaking.
Fermandois explained that the Government of Chile is totally committed to developing more partnerships with US institutions of all types and levels, and he described his recent visit to Harvard University where they discussed educational exchange programs between US and Chilean Universities.
He ended his greeting to the PC Volunteers noting that Chile was deeply committed to more interchange between Chile and the United States, a commitment that underlies Chile’s determination to obtain U.S. Visa Waiver status for Chileans visiting the United States, and he even suggested that a Peace Corps type program that would bring Chileans to the United States might be a viable program to pursue in the future.
Bringing this historic encounter to a close, the 220 Volunteers joined Ambassador Fermandois in a loud “Viva Chile”, after which pictures were taken of the group with the Ambassador Fermandois. The event ended with repeated “Viva Chile” and even a verse or two of “Si Vas Para Chile”.
Later that same night, the ever resilient Chile 27/28 group of Hagers, Bakers, Gallegos, Joslyns, Mills, Bodinson, Dillehay, Wetterberg and Goldsmith dined on steak and crab cakes at the Historic Old Ebbits Grill in downtown Washington DC, and as you all may have already guessed, before heading home we toasted the Peace Corps, Chile, and our friendship repeatedly with way too much award-winning Chilean tinto.
Posted on October 1, 2011, in Leesburg, Virginia