by Jerry Norris
In a March 15 open letter to Volunteers worldwide, Peace Corps Director Jody Olson wrote: we are acting to safeguard your well-being and prevent a situation where Volunteers are unable to leave their host countries.
Unfortunately, several U.S. media outlets interpreted that the intent of her letter was to also fire the Volunteers. Returning Volunteers suddenly found themselves without paid leave, with health insurance for only two months, and ineligible for unemployment benefits. For some of those returning from countries with no coronavirus cases to U.S. hot spots in New York and California, their sudden “firing” seemed ill-advised.
In this unanticipated milieu, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) stepped forward with a humanitarian response designed to assist returning Volunteers through a Global Reentry program. It will roll out an array of academic and career resources to assist those evacuated in taking the next steps in their professional pathways. However, the most critical element in NPCA’s response is advocacy to “ensure the future of the Peace Corps.”
That element takes on increasing importance when the current coronavirus pandemic passes. It is likely that there will be substantial reductions in the Federal Budget for FY 2021. A question will be asked by budget cutters: how did your Agency contribute to a resolution of the coronavirus pandemic?
If all Peace Corps can offer up is a self-serving notion that it evacuated all its Volunteers to keep them out of harm’s way, that is neither a compelling rationale for restoring its budget, nor to sustain the concept of Peace Corps as an independent Agency of our Government.
At present, Peace Corps is dormant because it has no Volunteers in the field. But it does represent through its returned volunteers a cadre of well-trained, dedicated and skilled professionals. The Peace Corps Director could offer to deploy them as Reserves to first line responders in such agencies as FEMA, the U.S. Public Health Service, the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as to local health and education departments throughout the U.S. For the past few months and for many months to come, these first responders will be stressed to their utmost, necessitating the need for a Reserve Force that can stand ready to back them up.
In this manner, Peace Corps could be relevant to our nation’s current crisis with the coronavirus by saying to future Federal budget cutters: Peace Corps provided 2,500 of its Volunteers to back-up FEMA’s first responders and another 5,000 to various agencies at federal, state and local governments. Their deployment allowed these agencies to rest and recuperate their first responders. When we so sorely needed that kind of professional assistance, Peace Corps was there for us—here at home.