LIHU‘E — The Peace Corps turns 50 this year, marking a time to celebrate an ongoing mission to promote world peace and friendship.
There are more than 8,600 active volunteers with an average age of 28. Established in 1961, the Peace Corps has since trained more than 200,000 volunteers to serve in more than 177 countries.
Joe Sylvester, a Kaua‘i resident for 30 years, was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1970s. He credits his adventurous spirit for his positive experience in Fiji.
The Peace Corps is not for everyone, but Sylvester said that as someone who was fascinated by cultures and a regular reader of National Geographic since age 10, the love of cultures and people helped a great deal to make it all a meaningful experience.
“One of the really good things about being thrown into a different culture is the ability to adapt and to be flexible,” Sylvester said. “It is really, really important. It teaches persistence. It also helps to be adventurous.”
Sylvester was a young agronomy graduate from the University of Delaware, specializing in corn. He was en route to a job that was cut for lack of funding, when he pursued the Peace Corps option to work on sugar plant diseases in Fiji.
Working within another culture, Sylvester recalled that young people right out of school sometimes overanalyze a situation, or even second-guess becoming a volunteer when things get tough. He recalled thinking that he would rather be in graduate school or exercising other career options. In the end, he said the experience was well worth-the-while.
“I ended up really falling in love with Fiji, and sugarcane agronomy. It ended up working out perfect for me,” he said. “A lot of my colleagues had to adapt and figure out how they were going to make a meaningful contribution when they were down there.”
Sylvester moved to Hawai‘i in 1981 and married in 1985. When the sugar industry collapsed in the 1990s the change was not as drastic as it could have been. He and his wife also run the Turtle Cove Suites vacation rentals in Po‘ipu.
The two had already operated a high-end gift shop and an art gallery for many years in addition to the vacations rentals. He said his new interest has been with mentoring youth and volunteering with senior programs.
Today, Sylvester keeps in touch with former Peace Corps friends that went on to graduate school at the University of Hawai‘i and stay to work in Honolulu. He hasn’t met many former volunteers on Kaua‘i but would like to meet with them if they are on island.
Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, a nonprofit organization for past volunteers, said the work of the Peace Corps has touched millions of people around the world, and succeeds in addressing poverty because it operates as part of the social fabric of a society.
“The big idea for the Peace Corps is to build a more peaceful and prosperous world,” Quigley said. “We help others to help themselves.”
Volunteers are expected to have a bachelor’s degree and some working knowledge of a second language and culture. They also need to show demonstrated experience through volunteering or working to show they can adapt well to diverse cultures and social environments.
After several months of training volunteers take part in an overseas experience that is based on their choice, their abilities and the needs of the Peace Corps. More than a third of the activities are in Africa, followed by Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, North Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands.
A distinctive hallmark of the Peace Corps is when the volunteer is integrated into another community and culture, said Quigley. They must learn the language and the place they are living to understand the people they encounter on a daily basis.
“These are empathetic skills that are essential to business success,” he said. “If they really understand what the person across the table is wanting in terms of service and outcome, then they will become more successful in business.”
The average age of the volunteer is rising, and they bring in life skills and professional experience, Quigley said. Some people want to give back and join mid-career or after retirement.
The Peace Corps is more well known for producing leaders in health, agriculture, engineering or social services. However, it has produced its share of business leaders.
Some notable business leaders who are past Peace Corps volunteers include: Thomas and Priscilla Wrubel, founders of the Nature Company; Frank Guzzetta, president of Ralph Lauren Home Collection; Tim McCollum and Brett Beach, founders of Madécasse; Edward Dolby, director, Family Dollar Stores, Inc.; and Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix.
Quigley said the biggest needs have been in agriculture, education and health, but have more recently focused on business development. “Especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the opening up of the former Soviet Block, and other countries that are moving away from the planned economies to market economies,” he added.
One in six volunteers is working on business development now, he said. More than 1,400 volunteers are working on everything from small business development, marketing issues, value chain issues, supply chain issues and the array of micro-loan programs for start-up businesses.
“It is about fostering the culture of entrepreneurism,” he said.
The kinds of training and skills that the Peace Corps offers are direct and tangible. The project work offers a direct application to the whatever they will pursue later in life.
• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or by emailing tlaventure@ thegardenisland.com.