With the death of Sargent Shriver, the great public servant and brother-in-law of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, on Tuesday and today's 50th anniversary of Kennedy's inauguration as President, I'm thinking about both men and their influence on my life as a young adult in the late '60s-early '70s. At that time I was two years out of college, still excited about the possibilities, and trying to decide what to make of life. What I decided to do was to accept President Kennedy's challenge to service and joined the Peace Corps in 1971, just 10 years after Sargent Shriver created the program for young Americans to serve as peace time ambassadors -- one of Kennedy's first directives. Here's how my Peace Corps experience unfolded:Inauguration Day, January 20, 1961
--here JFK steps out of the White House and walks with his elegant, beautiful young First Lady Jacqueline (wearing a greige wool melton coat by Oleg Cassini for you fashionistas :-)
to deliver his inaugural address. It's one that most of us remember. ". . .The torch as been passed to a generation of young Americans. . .Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country."
The next day Kennedy asked Shriver to develop a program that would send young Americans all over the world as working ambassadors in under developed countries. The Peace Corps was the result. With Shriver as its first director, the Corps sent over 200,000 volunteers to share their skills, knowledge, and friendship with people in 139 countries worldwide since its establishment in 1961.
In 1971 I had just completed two very satisfactory years of teaching, first in Kentucky and then in Florida, remedial reading for high school and middle school students who had gotten this far in their education and still hadn't been able to learn to read. In the evenings I taught reading in an adult basic education program for grownups who were having the same reading problems as my younger students. But I was having some Alfie moments--you know, as in "What's it all about?" During a summer break I talked with an older friend and mentor and career volunteer herself about my concerns. Now this is a woman whose children never dared to say they were bored. In her mind there was always something that needed to be done. I got the same advice--if you're not happy with your life, do something about it by helping others in greater need. Forty years later I still remember where we were--in the school pick up line--when she laid down this challenge. I took it.
While finishing the year's teaching in Florida I went through the lengthy application process for joining the Peace Corps--it's the U.S. government so there were forms and more forms; medical, criminal, and employment checks; character references.
I volunteered to teach but, having never been out of the U.S., I didn't list any country preferences, preferring to just go where needed most. Work colleagues gave me a lot of grief over this , predicting that I would be sent to Outer Mongolia or deepest Africa most likely.
To this day I have to chuckle at how this decision to not seek a specific volunteer location played out. It turned out that elementary teachers were needed in the eastern Caribbean on the tiny island of St. Kitts. And further, that all teaching volunteers would need to spend six weeks on Barbados, another island and vacation spot, in the Caribbean, working in local schools to become familiar with the English system of education used on many eastern Caribbean islands. Let me have time to think. . .(St. Kitts and Barbados are just above Venezuela on this map--have to look closely!)
So, in July 1971 I sold my Anti-establishmint Green Maverick (bought in the 60s, of course
), stored a few boxes of personal belongings at my parents' home, and took a first airplane ride to the Caribbean to teach 9-11 year olds at St. Joseph Infant School in Basseterre, St. Kitts. I lived in Pond's Pasture, a community near my school. This was my view every day because my home was right beside the sea. Early in the morning before school, I bought fresh fish for me and my dog Virgil from fishermen who lined up on the beach to sell their nightly catch.
For three years I tried to be part of the community where I taught, learning from my neighbors how to live richly in a poor country while teaching their children. I became friends with the young teachers that I work with at St. Joseph and with local trades people. I wore their clothes, cooked their food, and celebrated with them. It was an exciting, fulfilling time marked with some personal sadness that I'll leave for another time.
Luckily, there were some other Peace Corps volunteers assigned to St. Kitts as well as some English and Canadian volunteers. We became fast friends, helping each other through tough times and longing for home. I'm still friends with few today. My best friend was West Virginia (hey, I'm from the South and everyone has to have a nickname)
. Here we are in 1974 staying up too late, based on what I'm wearing, on a school night chatting with my roommate Diana. Apparently this was not one of those serious conversation nights as I'm playing "pretend to pick your nose for the camera." West VA now lives in Baltimore. We are still friends--mainly because he gave up wearing pocket protectors. I ask you, would you try to protect THAT shirt?
So, here's to two great men on this 50th anniversary. First, to a brave young President who knew that Americans could be more and that we could be trusted to spread good will, friendship and aid to our world neighbors. And to Sergent Shriver who was able to see need both at home and abroad and figure out how to help those, as the great Bob Marley said in One World
,". . .whose chances grow thinner."
I am proud to have had a small part in the plan.