Time is running short; Congress needs to reauthorize the Peace Corps

Michael K. O’Neill
Special to the Daily Times

Following President John Kennedy’s January 20, 1961 inspirational inaugural address when he stated those famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” he signed the original Peace Corps Act into law on September 22.

Now, 61 years later, Congress must update and reauthorize the Peace Corps Act again. In a world often on the brink of conflict, the United States Peace Corps has brought assistance to communities in need.

More than 240,000 Americans, including 2,280 New Mexicans, have served in 142 countries around the world, fulfilling aid requests from country partners. In 1971-1972, I served as a PC Volunteer in the northeast corner of Ghana, West Africa, where I taught secondary school (high school) sciences (Chemistry, Biology, and General Science). I then transferred to neighboring Burkina Faso in 1972 where I managed the construction of wide-bore water wells in remote Sahelian villages until late 1974.

Peace Corps Volunteers have changed innumerable lives for the better through projects that range from developing fish hatcheries to connecting patients to life saving medical treatments. Former Ghanian President John Mahama remembers his Peace Corps teacher John Woodfin from Alabama, who helped him understand both science and the United States. Former Angolan President Festus Mogae was quick to call on the Peace Corps to send PC Volunteers to help in the terrible AIDS epidemic.

FMN Dr Michael K O'Neill

During the COVID pandemic, Peace Corps volunteers were repatriated as societies around the world reacted to the virus. Despite the pandemic, Peace Corps continued its operation with new virtual service programs where volunteers helped serve partner communities through work provided over the internet.

Since March 2022, volunteers and volunteers-in-training are returning to nearly 30 countries to serve local communities once again in person. Chief Executive Officer Carol Spahn has indicated that these volunteers will help their communities manage COVID, as well as address other global issues such as climate change, health, education, agriculture, and community development.

Cloé Fortier-King, from Farmington, a graduate of Piedra Vista High School and Colorado Mesa University with a major in Sociology and a double minor in Psychology and Gender Studies, heads to Thailand in January 2023. She will undergo two and a half months of intensive technical, language, and cross-cultural training with her cohort group. Upon completion, she will be sworn in and assigned to her duty post for two years as a Peace Corps Youth in Development Volunteer. Working with teachers, government staff, influential adults or older youth, she will design classes and projects that support youth developing life and leadership skills.

Since 1961, numerous Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) from the Four Corners area rose to the challenges of service throughout the developing world and know first-hand the impacts of Peace Corps service.

A few of these Farmington RPCVs include: Mary Ann Briody, who served as a secondary school English teacher in the Democratic Republic of Congo (1984-1986); Vicki Holmsten, who served as a middle school English teacher in Liberia (1975-1977); and Joel Mayer who served two assignments in Niger (1973-1975), first as a secondary school English teacher, and then (1978-1981) as an English teacher trainer at the national university.

Other local RPCVs include Jim and Vicky Ramakka who served together in Colombia (1972-1974) as Smithsonian-Peace Corps Environmental Volunteers; Dr. Martia Glass who served twice, once as a Community Development Volunteer in India (1965-1967), and then as the Peace Corps Medical Officer based in South Africa (1998-2000) covering seven countries; Martia’s late husband, Gordon Glass, was a primary school teacher in Malawi (1965-1967); and Amy O’Neill, served as a Nutritionist in Niger (1979-1981).

Through this continuum of service, the Peace Corps is one of the least expensive programs in the US government. It composes roughly 1% of the International Affairs Budget, comprising only 0.01% of the federal budget. For such a small investment, we return a large global impact.

While it has been over 20 years since Congress reauthorized the original Peace Corps Act, last September Democrats and Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee came together and passed H.R.1456 by a vote of 44 to 4. More recently, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed their version of the legislation (S. 4466) by a voice vote with no opposition.

Now is the time to build on this bipartisan momentum, as the next generation of Peace Corps Volunteers begins or prepares for service.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez recently co-sponsored H.R. 1456. Please express your gratitude to the Congresswoman and urge her to vote for the full Peace Corps Reauthorization Act later this year. Also request Senators Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich to co-sponsor S. 4466 and vote for passage of the full Act. Requesting Senators Luján and Heinrich for their support of Carol Spahn to be named as Peace Corps Director will also be crucial. Coming together to support and improve the Peace Corps is an important step toward deepening our nation’s commitment to service and our nation’s highest ideals.

Dr. Michael K. O’Neill was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana from 1971-1972 and in Burkina Faso from1972-1974; and later an NMSU Professor of Agronomy and José Fernández Memorial Chair in Crop Production – Emeritus, at the New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center at Farmington from 1999-2018.