Exploring new worlds: the Peace Corps

Between graduating from college in 1966 and entering law school in 1968, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica.

Many times since my return, people have told me that they always had wanted to be in the Peace Corps.

My response almost always has been, well it was a great experience, and it’s not too late for you to do it now.

But invariable the people then come up with some sort of explanation as to why they can’t do it, at least not now.

Well, in 2011, the Peace Corps will be celebrating its 50th birthday, and it is continuing to do good work. In fact, according to its website, the number of applicants grew by 18% more than a year ago, although I recognize that the economy might have had something to do with it.

The mission statement is in three parts: 1) Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; 2) Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served; and 3) Helping promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.

Obviously, the Peace Corps is certainly not for everyone. In fact, if you even have to ask why someone would want to be involved in such a thing “for two whole years,” you probably would never understand. People either have an intuitive understanding about what it is to be a volunteer, or they don’t.

When I went to Costa Rica, I requested the smallest town in the country that had a high school, and they gave it to me.

The reason was in part that it was completely inconsistent with my vision of a Peace Corps experience to take a bus to work, like some of my colleagues did in the capital city.

My town of Palmar Norte was on the Inter-American Highway, about half way from the point south of the capital city of San Jose where the paving on the highway ended, and the Panamanian border, where it resumed.

It is amazing to me that Costa Rica is now a tourist destination, because when I was there people were mostly ignorant of even where it was — often confusing it with Puerto Rico.

But I was a “profesor de educación física” in the high school, and I also taught physical education in the local elementary schools, as well as general health and community recreation in my extended community.

In fact, I probably still hold the world’s record for brushing my teeth in front of more elementary school classes than anyone else in history.

My biggest tangible success sometimes seemed to be teaching some of the elementary school students to take turns while “up at bat” in our kickball games, because mostly everyone was first in line, all of the time.

But actually, my most general success probably was being able to show the people in my small community that North Americans could work hard at a project, perspire and get dirty.

Clearly my biggest failure was my inability to establish the practice with most families of boiling their drinking water.

When I was there, Costa Rica was believed by many actually to lead the world in birth rates per capita. Nevertheless, their population generally was not expending because of the high infant mortality rate.

And the reason for that mostly was the parasites in their drinking water.

Thus, it was not unusual for me to see a funeral service for an infant in an open casket, in which the mother or someone else had to brush aside the worms that were crawling out of the mouth and nose of the deceased child (I am sorry if this offends, but it’s true — and I grieve about it).

I also tried to spread information about natural birth control to the adults in my town by handing out literature, and encouraging the female home economics teacher in our high school to help me with the discussions.

But that was right at the time that the Papal Encyclical was issued that forbid Catholics even from discussing this subject.

So after this was issued, Padre Samuel Stewart, who was our community’s Catholic priest and a friend of mine, told me that if I didn’t stop, he would take the pulpit against me. What could a Peace Corps volunteer do against a force like that? So I stopped.

By the time my two-year term was completed, I think I was able to make a contribution in keeping with the mission statement.

I helped our Peace Corps group teach a clinic in San Jose that was able to pass along some needed skills and approaches to virtually all of the physical education professors in the country; I led some of my students into various careers that they might not otherwise have pursued; and I became friends and colleagues to quite a few Costa Ricans, with whom I communicated for decades.

For my part, I believe that I learned more from the Costa Ricans than they did from me.

And I also learned to speak a second language, such that years later as a judge I was able to try some of my small claims court cases in Spanish.

And you should have seen the eyes of some of the litigants grow large when this gringo started talking Spanish.

Since the Peace Corps began, about 195,000 volunteers have served in 139 host countries.

But over time the Peace Corps has changed substantially. When I was involved, there was a virtual prohibition against a volunteer being married, and if those who were married ever were expecting children, they were sent home immediately. In addition, most of the volunteers were like me: recent college liberal arts graduates who had lots of idealism, but few skills.

And most of our assignments were either to teach English, or to be involved in “community development.”

So look at it this way: Most of us were young, without real practical skills, not adept in the local language or really understanding the local culture or history, and were being sent down to other people’s countries to help them “develop their communities.” So all of this was a bit arrogant of us back then, if you think of it in that context.

Fortunately, many of those things have changed over time, because more older and wiser volunteers are being recruited, and are serving. And these are people who not only have more life skills, but they also can pass along much of their practical experience, maturity, and demonstrated abilities to the locals.

So if you are one of those people who have frequently thought to yourself that you would like to join the Peace Corps, or a similar domestic program like Teach for America, give some serious thought about doing it now. And if you are married or even if you have children, so much the better.

From my own personal experience, I can tell you that it is one of the most gratifying experiences that you could ever have.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)