WASHINGTON -- The Peace Corps, tempered by a 'more realistic idealism,' celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, intent on continuing its mission of reshaping the world a bit at a time.
'When Jack Kennedy announced the Peace Corps in 1960, I think we had the hope that we could change the world almost all by ourselves,' said director Richard Celeste in an interview.
'Today, we know the hard realities of the development process,' he said. 'I think the Peace Corps, as an enterprise, and the individual volunteers we recruit approach our service with a much more realistic idealism, a very practical, 'Let's roll up our sleeves and tackle a small piece of the problem.''
At its peak, the 'ambassadors of peace' program proposed by President John Kennedy numbered 12,000 American volunteers in 85 countries. Today, the Peace Corps has half that number in 61 countries and a lower public profile than in the heady days of the New Frontier.
'The Peace Corps is not as visible today as it was even seven or eight years ago,' Celeste said. 'Many people say, 'Oh, the Peace Corps _ is that still alive?''
It is, but it has changed. Twenty years ago, two-thirds of the volunteers were teachers, half of them teaching English as a second language. Now, with developing nations becoming more educated, only 40 percent of volunteers teach, mainly vocational skills.
Celeste hopes to see other changes, too, like drawing in more blue-collar and minority volunteers. He speaks of a campaign to recruit the unemployed onto the good-will team.
Early on, almost all the Peace Corps staff was American. Now, two-thirds of the staff abroad are foreigners.
'We are becoming much more international in our character, and we should,' said Celeste, 42, a former Ohio lieutenant governor who became director last year.
'We're more focused on what we call basic human needs ... food production, health care, the development of energy sources that are affordable at the village level, reforestation,' Celeste said. 'We've grown up.'
The volunteers have matured, too. In the early days, most were fresh from college. Now the average age is 27, although half are in their early 20s. But youth is not a requirement _ 6 percent are over 55, as was President Carter's mother, Lillian, when she served in India in 1966-67.
The Peace Corps' official birth came by act of Congress in 1961, but the anniversary is being celebrated to commemorate Kennedy's 1960 campaign announcement of the idea. The Democratic candidate, in a 2 a.m. speech to 10,000 University of Michigan students, called for an international 'youth service program.'