Peace Corps volunteers and Rotary members find meaningful connections
In December 2017, on his first night as a Peace Corps volunteer in the ancient North Macedonian city of Štip, Cal Mann was welcomed with a raucous party at a rustic cabin far outside of town. There was an abundance of food and drinks, and a boom box blared local music. As the party raged well past midnight, Mann watched, beer in hand. “I’m like, I can’t do this for two years, that’s for sure,” he recalls.
So you can understand his trepidation the next day when he found out a barbecue was in the works. Being a good sport and new to the city, he opted to go — a pivotal decision, it turns out. At the barbecue he struck up a conversation with a man named Zoran Kolev, who spoke English. As talk came around to Mann’s work as a Peace Corps volunteer, Kolev mentioned that there was a new service club in the city: the Rotary Club of Štip.
“He told me they had just started the club a few months before,” Mann says. “They didn’t really know what Rotary was, but someone had told them it was a good thing to do.” This was great news to Mann, who had been a Rotary member since 2004 (and who currently belongs to the Rotary E-Club of Silicon Valley).
“I was thrilled to have met someone involved in Rotary so I could tap into my experience there. And they were happy to have someone who knew what Rotary was.”
Mann’s primary assignment with the Peace Corps was to work with a legal clinic for Roma residents, but volunteers are encouraged to take on a side project. Rotary became his. “I had just linked up with a club of people with big networks in the community, and most spoke English,” Mann says. “I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid. I figured that’s a pretty good opportunity. I better jump on it.”
Mann connected the club with a youth group and worked on small projects such as litter cleanups. When two Peace Corps volunteers in Štip who were teaching English needed more books, Mann talked to the club about finding a local distributor and also reached out to his friends at the Rotary Club of La Jolla, California, where he’d been a member previously, to connect them with the Štip club so that they could work together on the project.
Mann’s supervisor at the Peace Corps took notice. By the end of 2019, Peace Corps Northern Macedonia had placed four Peace Corps volunteers with Rotary clubs in the country. “The clubs loved it because they got volunteers who were really knowledgeable in the area of community development and who had a lot of ideas, energy, time, and skills,” Mann says. “The volunteers loved it because Rotary clubs immediately gave them a good connection to their community and a natural circle of friends.”
It was a match made in heaven. Rotary and the Peace Corps seemed meant for one another — as subsequent developments would demonstrate.
It was an impromptu speech by John F. Kennedy, just weeks before the 1960 presidential election, that catapulted the idea of a volunteer corps of Americans into public consciousness. Speaking from the steps of the student union at the University of Michigan, he challenged students, who had been waiting until well after midnight for his arrival, to contribute part of their life to service. The idea took hold, and hundreds of students signed petitions pledging to volunteer. In March 1961, President Kennedy signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps. “‘Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country’ was very real for me,” says Ted Bendelow, a member of the Rotary Club of Mead, Colorado, who joined the Peace Corps six months after Kennedy’s assassination and served in Liberia from 1964 to 1966.
In the 60 years since its creation, more than 240,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps. Chances are there might be a returned Peace Corps volunteer (known as an RPCV) in your club or district. “They pop up in Rotary more than you might think,” says Charlie Hunt, a member of the Rotary Club of Denver Lodo, who served in Vanuatu from 2006 to 2008. Hunt recalls attending a Rotary club meeting while traveling to another part of the United States and hearing an opinionated academic speaking about Iran. “A Rotarian took her to task,” Hunt says. “He said he had spent two years in Iran. He had been a Peace Corps volunteer.”
The relationship between Rotary International and the Peace Corps, made official with a 2014 partnership agreement, has its foundation in the organizations’ shared values. The mission of the Peace Corps — “to promote world peace and friendship” — is one Rotary has embraced for more than 100 years. And the Peace Corps’ chief areas of focus — agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health, and youth in development — have much in common with Rotary’s.
The Peace Corps has three goals: providing training for men and women in interested host countries; helping people in those countries to better understand Americans; and helping Americans to better understand other peoples. Service, therefore, is meant to continue once volunteers return home. “The third goal is not necessarily just about telling stories about your Peace Corps experience,” Hunt says. “It’s about being active in your community and how you can best take the things you’ve done in the Peace Corps and apply them when you come back.”
Steve Werner, a member of the Rotary Club of Denver Southeast and a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea from 1976 to 1978, recalls a meeting in the early 1990s with JFK’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, who had served as the first director of the Peace Corps. Then the board chair for the National Peace Corps Association, Werner stopped by Shriver’s office to have him sign some fundraising letters, a task he thought would take only 15 minutes. But Shriver was in the mood to talk. “He told me that the vision was that once a Peace Corps volunteer, we would always be a Peace Corps volunteer,” Werner says. “We would continue to serve after we got home to be examples to our fellow Americans. It was a big part of my motivation for becoming a Rotarian.”
Number of people who have served in the Peace Corps over the past 60 years
Percent of volunteers over age 50
Average volunteer age
Werner served another tour as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Georgia in 2016, this time with Peace Corps Response. While similar in approach to the two-year traditional program, Peace Corps Response assignments are shorter (generally 9-12 months) and involve higher impact projects geared to volunteers with more technical expertise in a particular program area.
Elsewhere in 2016, Andy Lenec was listening to NPR with his son when he heard an interview with the oldest active Peace Corps volunteer at the time: 87-year-old Alice Carter, who had just finished her first year in Morocco. “I’d been a Rotarian for over 25 years and service is second nature to me,” Lenec says. “I looked at my son, and he said, ‘Go for it, Dad.’ The next thing I know, I’m filling out the Peace Corps application form online.”
Lenec was assigned to Truskavets, a small city in western Ukraine near the Polish border where a Rotary club had applied for a Peace Corps volunteer in partnership with the city government and library. The club was small but committed. “Because of economic struggles, Rotary in Ukraine can cost as much as one month’s salary for annual dues,” Lenec says. “Many just cannot afford it. So a club of what used to be 20 was down to maybe 4.”
Once in Truskavets, Lenec decided that he wanted his side project for the Peace Corps to involve young people. He proposed an international youth conference to the Rotarians, and they jumped at the idea, as did the city’s mayor. As Lenec traveled to other Rotary clubs to encourage them to support the conference, a Rotarian asked if the conference could be turned into a Rotary Youth Leadership Awards event, which was defunct in the country. Lenec had been involved in RYLA for years and had seen the impact it makes on youth. Now he had a new goal: “We were going to revive RYLA in Ukraine,” he says.
Unfortunately, Lenec became ill while planning the event and had to return to Colorado, where he is now a member of the Rotary Club of Denver Lodo. But another Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine, Shannon Carter, stepped in and worked with Rotarians to keep the momentum going. During the summer of 2019, the RYLA took place; 17 young people from Ukraine, Japan, and Armenia participated. “It cemented faith in the program,” Carter says. Carter then helped organize a virtual RYLA in 2020 with more than 700 registered participants.
Unlike Lenec with his decades of Rotary experience, Carter had none. But she soon discovered how valuable the Rotary network would be, both with RYLA and her future projects. Following up on work Lenec had done to raise awareness of the RYLA project with clubs in North America, Carter was introduced to Gordon Crann, a member of the Rotary Club of Hamilton After Five, Ontario. Crann, who has an extensive global network as past chair of both the Rotary Action Group for Peace and the Rotary Action Group for Community and Economic Development, offered to help Carter promote RYLA. Then he went one step further: He suggested she also apply for a Rotary Peace Fellowship.
“I was very impressed by Shannon and her organizational ability,” Crann says. “She was the key person in bringing everything together, and this was an interna-tional effort. Peace Corps volunteers have shown they have a commitment to Service Above Self by taking time off [for public service], when they could be making a lot more money in jobs in the United States.”
Carter applied, and today she is a Rotary Peace Fellow at the University of Bradford, England, and a member of the Rotaract Club of Lviv International, Ukraine. “I went into RYLA anticipating personal growth, but I didn’t foresee the international network I would gain that would provide future opportunities like the Rotary Peace Fellowship,” Carter says. “My experience as a Peace Corps volunteer cemented my confidence in myself and made me realize we are fully able to do what we want in life.”
One of the driving forces behind the Rotary-Peace Corps partnership at the international level is a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers from Colorado who named themselves the “Tiger Team,” after a dog owned by one of its members. The group began meeting in November 2009 at the instigation of Sue Fox, a past president of the Rotary Club of Denver and a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in Liberia from 1968 to 1970. Fox recognized the potential for the two groups; as she told a local business magazine at the time, “RPCVs and Rotarians are kindred spirits, seeking the same goals embodied in Rotary’s motto, Service Above Self.”
The Tiger Team expanded to include other Rotarians as well as returned Peace Corps volunteers who were not affiliated with Rotary. Their group, which became the organization Partnering for Peace, proposed to Rotary International and the Peace Corps administration that a formal alliance be established between the two organizations. That step was taken in May 2014, and the partnership was recently renewed for another three years.
“What really drove us initially was the concern for people in the countries where the Peace Corps and Rotary work,” says Werner, one of the original Tiger Team members. “By working together, we could create bigger, more sustainable projects.”
Through the partnership, the Rotary and Peace Corps global networks are encouraged to share their resources and knowledge to boost the impact of development projects globally. There are many ways Peace Corps volunteers and Rotary members can support each other, whether before, during, or after a Peace Corps assignment. (See “How to Work with a Peace Corps Volunteer,” page 55.) Hunt, for example, speaks at a send-off brunch hosted by the local Peace Corps recruiter every year to encourage volunteers to connect with their home Rotary club before they go overseas. Bendelow connected a Rotary club embarking on a service project in Nicaragua with Peace Corps volunteers who had served in the country and could advise the Rotarians on cultural norms. Lenec, Carter, and Mann saw their efforts as Peace Corps volunteers amplified when they worked with Rotary clubs. And it’s been Hunt’s experience that returned Peace Corps volunteers make great club speakers. “Typically what volunteers find is that when they talk about their experience with friends, their friends’ eyes glaze over,” Hunt says. “Getting in front of Rotary clubs is more cathartic.”
Kim Dixon knows all about that. After she returned to North Carolina from her 2014-16 Peace Corps assignment in Georgia, she spoke at five Rotary clubs about her experiences. “The Rotary clubs were most welcoming and interested,” she says. “They all invited me to join their clubs and also were waiting for an ‘ask’ for a funding project. I didn’t have a project at the time, but now I know better.”
In 2019, Dixon joined the Rotary Club of Raleigh Midtown, finding it an easy way to connect with like-minded people and continue serving her community. “Being away for several years, I didn’t have the connections anymore to find nonprofits to support,” she says. “Rotary just dropped in my lap like a present.”
As 2020 began, Mann was making great progress with his initiative to connect Peace Corps volunteers and Rotary members in North Macedonia. The posting of four volunteers to a Rotary club in their assignment city was going so well that the organization was planning to have 10 more volunteers in the next cohort join up with Rotary clubs. Mann signed on for another year of Peace Corps service to see the initiative through. Then, one day in March, his country director called him into his office. Earlier in the week, Mann had floated the idea of staying on for a fourth year, and now he joked about the quick response.
The country director didn’t laugh. Instead, as Mann recalls, he said, “I have an option for you: You can get on a plane in 12 hours or 36 hours, but you have to get on a plane.” Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Peace Corps was suspending operations globally for the first time in its history. All volunteers needed to go home.
Only two weeks earlier, Mann had moved to Skopje, the country’s capital. He had a new bed he hadn't even slept in yet, but 36 hours later he was on his way back to California. In all, the Peace Corps evacuated nearly 7,000 people in 60 countries, many in remote villages, in 10 days. “I’m an optimist by nature,” Mann says. “But I was really naively optimistic, so much so that I didn’t unpack my bags for three days. I thought they’d call me and tell me I’m coming back.”
Over the past year, Mann has been mentoring Rotaractors and speaking at Rotary clubs about his Peace Corps experience. He was nominated (as was Hunt) for the 2021 Lillian Carter Award, which is given to outstanding individuals who serve in the Peace Corps at age 50 or older. But the minute he can go back to North Macedonia, he’s prepared. As he chats over Zoom, he glances at a nearby closet. “I took everything out of that closet and put everything I need for the Peace Corps in there, including luggage,” he says. “When the fire drill goes off, I can pack faster than anybody. I’m ready to go.”
How to work with a Peace Corps volunteer
The Peace Corps sends U.S. citizens abroad to promote international understanding and tackle pressing needs, many of which align with Rotary’s areas of focus. Involving a Peace Corps volunteer in your club project can help increase its impact and sustainability. Many Peace Corps volunteers enter service as Rotaractors or Rotarians or become involved with Rotary after their service. There are opportunities to engage with them before, during, or after their Peace Corps assignment. Read on for some ideas.
If you are a Rotary club in a country that hosts Peace Corps volunteers:
- Invite the Peace Corps volunteer working in your community to a club meeting or to visit a club project.
- If your club is located in a capital city, where most Peace Corps country offices are located, invite the Peace Corps country director to a club meeting.
- Speak at Peace Corps volunteers’ pre-or mid-service trainings to let them know about ways they can connect with Rotary during their assignment.
- Partner with a Peace Corps volunteer on a humanitarian project.
- Help a Peace Corps volunteer in your community by facilitating connections.
If you are a Rotary club in the United States:
- Host a Peace Corps recruiter as a speaker at your club meeting or conference, or host or speak at a Peace Corps send-off party.
- Connect with a Peace Corps volunteer from your area before they leave for their service to talk about opportunities for supporting their work.
- Invite a returned volunteer as a speaker at your club meeting.
- Host a welcome-back party to begin engaging with returned volunteers.
- Ask a returned volunteer to share their expertise with a project or provide cultural coaching.
Rotary and the Peace Corps have published a toolkit with more ideas and resources.
Celebrate Rotary and the Peace Corps in September
Partnering for Peace, a grassroots effort led by individuals from the Peace Corps community and Rotary members around the world, is hosting a weeklong event 20-26 September to highlight the Rotary-Peace Corps partnership. The celebration will include a webinar featuring RI General Secretary John Hewko and Peace Corps Acting Director Carol Spahn.
Learn more about ideas on how to create a program.
This story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.