2002 feature story about Peace Corps published sometime in 2002.
"This time of adversity offers a unique moment of opportunity," said President Bush in his State of the Union address, where he called for a "New culture of responsibility" in America and urged every citizen to pledge two years or 4,000 hours of volunteer service to America. To nurture this vision he proposed creating the USA Freedom Corps, which would subsume oversight of existing organizations like Americorps, Senior Corps, and the Peace Corps, as well as foster development of new volunteer programs both at home and abroad. This begs the question — from all the options, where do you serve?
Well, if you're looking to capture it all in one fell swoop; the adversity, the opportunity, the new culture and the two years of service; there really is only one choice — The United States Peace Corps.
As a volunteer currently serving in the central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan, what follows is a firsthand glimpse of what you can expect should you choose to embark on what is referred to among current and past volunteers as "The Peace Corps Experience."
The Peace Corps is a U.S. government agency, so just getting the stack of application material filled out, kept together and sent back correctly is likely one of the most demanding tasks you'll be asked to perform. Once invited to join, your Peace Corps recruiter matches your skills to host country needs. You can try and choose your location, but it won't be easy; most go where Peace Corps says they're needed. Turns out, you're going to the Republic of Kazakhstan, a central Asian state granted independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. You spend the next few days on the Internet figuring out where you just agreed to spend the next two-plus years of your life. You read about the 400 or so Russian nuclear tests conducted there, the industrial pollution, the tuberculosis, the heavy metals in the water, and the hostile climate. Amazingly, it still sounds better than another week at the office.
You sell everything you should have sold nine years ago and spend the proceeds on Ziploc bags, batteries, books, contact lens solution, hand cream and two industrial-size pieces of Samsonite. Your family and friends think youive finally snapped. Your departure at the airport is straight out of a bad novel.
Your next 10 weeks are spent undergoing intensive language, cultural and development training while living in a small village with a host family. They are people who have endured more drastic political and socioeconomic change in the last 10 years than any American could ever imagine. They accept you into their home and feed you everything they have because that's how they are. At the end of training, you're sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer and assigned to your new home in the city of Kyzylorda.
Time passes and you now find yourself on the train back to Peace Corps headquarters where you and the other volunteers reconvene for mandatory medical and training sessions after six months of life on the Kazakhstani steppe. Everyone has developed a more unique voice and cultivated a better sense of humor. As nice as this reunion is, the beauty of Peace Corps is your time apart.
What you can't help thinking the rest of the ride back to what you now call home isn't so much what your ''Peace Corps Experience" tells you about Kazakhstan, but rather what it tells you about America. While your service to her is going to hurt, it's probably the sweetest pain you'll ever feel, because when you touch down two years later, a good part of what I imagine the cantaloupe-sized lump in your throat will be from is how good it feels to know you're back home, and that your last two years was exactly as Peace Corps said it would be — the toughest job you'll ever love.
Matt Brady is a former Midland resident.