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AS I SEE IT: Peace Corps purposeful at 52

Today, in 2013 here in Worcester, we are working to leverage the Campaign for Grade Level Reading with a special emphasis on getting books into the hands of young readers and their families.
A few weeks ago at a national conference focused upon innovations in education, I was chatting with some table-mates. I mentioned the Peace Corps and was stopped. A question was posed: “The Peace Corps? Is that still around?”

I quickly responded that the Peace Corps is a young 52 years old. Empirical lessons that I lived more than 20 years ago I use to this day.

On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order to create the U.S. Peace Corps. Although more than 50 years old today, the U.S. Peace Corps remains as important and as vibrant a program as when it was first envisioned.

My wife Theresa and I, emboldened with spirit and the sense that we could make a difference and that we could learn so much, joined the Peace Corps as volunteers in 1991.

I served as a Youth Development Program Specialist assigned to the Montego Bay (MoBay), Jamaica Boys and Girls Club. The MoBay Boys and Girls Club, as all Boys and Girls Clubs are throughout the world, was a place of great hope. More than 500 kids between the ages of 4 and 25 used the Club every day, and their lives were enriched from the experience.

On my first day, armed with organizational and management questions, I met the directors of the Club, Pops and Mr. Earl. I asked how they recruited kids to join. Did they have a strategic plan? Were there operating policies and procedures? What impacts did they hope to accomplish with each child?

And then I asked about the club’s budget. Pops put his arm around my shoulder and smiled.

“When we have money, we spend it; if we don’t have it, we don’t spend it.”

I believe to this day, that response from Pops was the best definition of budget management that I have ever heard. Further, in the 20 years that I have led nonprofit organizations, I have put into practice the essence of Pops’ policy, and that has led to balanced budgets wherever I have been.

There were other lessons, too, that I learned and that I use to this day.

One of my first tasks at the Boys and Girls Club was to assist Herman, the Rasta builder in the construction of a library. Herman was the engineer and architect. I was the laborer. The tools were rudimentary; a “level” was a two by four and a marble — simple, yet effective. We constructed a small cinderblock room with two open-air windows and many, many shelves.

I then wrote letters to all of my friends and contacts back in the United States asking for book donations. About two weeks later, I began to receive package slips from the post office. In three months time, we received more than 5,000 books. Some were amazingly useful: Chilton’s auto repair manuals. Others were filled with knowledge — including a set of encyclopedias — and others filled the shelves, like the 50 copies of Jack Benny’s autobiography.

Today, in 2013 here in Worcester, we are working to leverage the Campaign for Grade Level Reading with a special emphasis on getting books into the hands of young readers and their families.

While in Jamaica, I chose a supplemental project when serving as a volunteer. That project was to reinvigorate Street School, a program for the children who worked and lived in the market (and who did not attend formal school).

We crafted a three-part, three-hour day for these children: a recreational activity, often soccer or Frisbee, a healthy and filling meal, and then academics of math and English.

One young man, aged 11, struggled with the alphabet. He had the courage to tell me that all of the 30 or more children struggled, too. For them, the alphabet was more of an arts and crafts project; they did not comprehend that the letters of the alphabet represented sounds, which when put together formed into words.

I learned more than 20 years ago that early education for all children and the development of language-rich environments is critically important for future academic success and secondary school graduation. This too, today, is a focus of Gov. Deval Patrick’s Gateway Cities and education efforts.

While in the Peace Corps we served as volunteers, building relationships with people — children, shopkeepers, small business developers, public health officials. Those relationships and the knowledge transfer assisted in nation building, both for the countries that we served in and for our own country when we came back home.

The U.S. Peace Corps is 52 years old. It is as important and as vital today as when it was created.

Tim Garvin is president and CEO of the United Way of Central Massachusetts.

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Worcester Telegram & Gazette

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