Tuesday's Town Hall was a great success! Many thanks to the Office of the Third Goal for the strong organization, Peace Corps HQ's tech team for streaming the meeting around the world, and, of course, Carrie, for taking part in the discussion.
Our very own Corey Taylor, co-architect of the first Town Hall, gave the introduction and the history behind the event. The Town Hall began in 2011, a year when Peace Corps both celebrated its 50th year, and grieved for the loss of one of its founding fathers, Sargent Shiver. It was also a time of confusion for many in the Peace Corps community because of a 20/20 special report on the tragic murder of volunteer in Benin, Kate Puzy. As part of the special program, her parents expressed criticisms of the Peace Corps, which many in our community felt were well-founded. But also the report sparked criticism that seemed, frankly, unfair to the organization, the volunteers and the returned volunteers. RPCV/W directors Corey Taylor and Kristina Owens approached the Peace Corps HQ with an idea to address the Peace Corps community and answer any questions about the event. The experience was cathartic for all, and began a tradition that we continue to this day.
Following Corey's introduction, RPCV/W Treasurer Jason Smith, sat down with Peace Corps Director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, to moderate a discussion based on five general themes. Questions streamed in from around the country from a diverse body of RPCVs, some of whom were recently returned and some were among the first to sign on.
What has changed in the Peace Corps over the last 50 years?
The core of Peace Corps' philosophy, its mission, is unchanged. Even the numbers of currently serving volunteers, around 7000 per year, have stayed the same. But there have been many changes, which were identified during the 2010 comprehensive review of the organization. Most recently, Peace Corps has received good press on its overhaul of the application system. It has been dramatically shortened and allows volunteers to chose the location of service as well as the desired position. Carrie reports that these changes have spiked applications by 400% over July in the previous year. Also interesting is that half of all applicants choose to serve wherever they are most needed. Beyond the application, recruitment and interviews have become more efficient and standardized.
NPCA's White House Petition
If you haven't already, consider signing NPCA's petition to the White House to increase Peace Corps funding. As Carrie mentioned, one reason why the Peace Corps numbers are steady at 7000 is because the allotted budget can only cover 7000 volunteers.
There have been many changes to communications systems as well. Nowadays most volunteers have cell phone and internet access. These innovations help with monitoring and evaluation of programs, and also enable volunteers to keep in regular contact with family and friends. To be sure, there is a flip side to this. Over beers at the RPCV/W happy hour following the TownHall, some RPCVs grouched that having communication devices increased expectations that volunteers would be more communicative. Beyond the simple desire to fully submerge in the local culture, RPCVs said that technical issues such as unstable connections and expensive bandwidth can make cell phone and internet access a mixed blessing. For details, please refer to the Peace Corps website.
LGBT Awareness Trainings
Among the more personal comments was a description by LGBT Training Specialist Daniel Hinkle on the ongoing training for Peace Corps National Staff. Recently Peace Corps has enabled same-sex couples to serve in countries where homosexuality is legal. As part of the training, some of the couples and local LGBT NGO members shared their coming out stories with national staff. The experience of hearing stories from both American and the local perspectives brings home the notion that homosexuality is universal and the coming out stories are deeply human and relatable experiences.
Other questions covered recent the evacuations of Ukraine, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Carrie empathized with the evacuated volunteers because being suddenly removed from service is wrenching and makes readjustment difficult. There is hope that both Ukraine and Kenya will reopen at some point. Despite the bombings and other destruction that is shown on the news, much of the Ukraine, particularly in the West, is stable, and Peace Corps officers remain in country to assess the situation. There is, by the way, an inspiring story about the evacuated Ukraine volunteers who are continuing their service from home, over the internet. RPCV/W is hosting an event at the Ukrainian Embassy on November 5th, where several Ukraine volunteer will talk about their experiences. Several countries are also set to open, including Burma and the Comoros Islands.
Many asked about Peace Corps involvement in the Ebola crisis. The Peace Corps programs have evacuated, but HQ has donated their resources to the CDC, which had no on-the-ground presence in Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. The CDC is using Peace Corps buildings, cars and even participating in community health workshop training led by Peace Corps national staff. Beyond just the headquarters, the RPCV community is also working on the project through the Ebola Task Force, a combined effort of Friends of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Please contact NPCA for more information on how you can help.
Health Benefits for RPCVS
An audience member asked if RPCVs could expect improvements to their health insurance, given that the current system is so bureaucratic and difficult. Carrie mentioned that the insurance group is separate from Peace Corps, but that together they are trying to improve the service. Peace Corps is also looking into alternative options to help volunteers. Recently, a group of volunteers have created their own advocacy group, under NPCA's umbrella, called the Health Justice Group, which pushing for improved health service.They have launched the conversation between the NPCA and Peace Corps HQ to address the situation.
Thank you all who attended and we will see you again for the Town Hall next year (and hopefully sooner).
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