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Peace Corps still changing lives decades after inception

By Darcel Rockett/Chicago Tribune (TNS) • Mar 2, 2018 at 6:00 PM

CHICAGO — If it feels as if you’re being asked about the state of America from friends and family outside the country or when visiting other nations on your travels, imagine what Peace Corps volunteers must go through after serving in locales around the globe?

It’s a situation 28-year-old Alexandria Trimble of Chicago’s Lakeview area is familiar with. After serving in El Salvador in 2013-15, she said she often gets questions from her host family and community on Facebook about the political climate in the U.S.

“They’ll say, ‘What’s going on?’ And I’ll say, ‘Guys, I can’t explain this. I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just trying to keep up myself,’ “ she said. “It just makes my blood boil when I hear people talking about immigrants: ‘Oh, yeah, kick all the El Salvadorans out (of the country).’ It just makes me so angry because they have no idea. I just want to tell them, ‘Let me sit down and tell you all about my memories in El Salvador and how you’re wrong.’ “

This comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s comments about immigrants from specific countries.

“I immediately thought of people serving in country when that came out,” said Joey Brown, 36, a Bucktown resident and 2008-2010 Peace Corps volunteer who served in Samoa. “I feel for them. I’m sure the people that they’re working with understand he’s (Trump) not speaking for them, but at the same time, as the only American there, oftentimes, people are going to ask and want to know what their perspectives are.”

Being a Peace Corps volunteer is a unique experience — one that many Illinoisans seek out, according to recent statistics from the service agency. Illinois ranks No. 6 among states with the highest number of volunteers, and the Chicago metro area ranks No. 4 among metropolitan areas with the highest number of volunteers per 100,000 residents. Illinois and the Chicago metro area have consistently ranked as a top volunteer-producing state and metro area for five consecutive years. Peace Corps Week (Feb. 25 to March 3), which commemorates the creation of the service organization March 1, 1961, by President John F. Kennedy, former volunteers said being of service is as important now in the current social and political climate as it was in the past.

Trimble and Brown, board members of the Chicago Area Peace Corp Association, said they’re not sure why Illinois and Chicago rank so high in producing Peace Corps volunteers, but they agree that their stints were among the most memorable experiences of their lives. “Peace Corps has this very true slogan: ‘The toughest job you’ll ever love.’ And it’s very true, but it will also be the most fulfilling and interesting two years, potentially, of your life,” said Trimble, a public relations representative for the Chicago Public Library. “Service has always been important, I think, but if you want to be a more worldly aware and fulfilled person, Peace Corps will help you become that person.”

James Baldwin, a West Town resident who served in the Corps in Azerbaijan in 2010-2012, said that, as the world gets smaller, it’s hard to beat the “unofficial grass-roots diplomacy that Peace Corps volunteers can do.” The lessons he learned reinforced a lot of things, he said. “Azerbaijan is a Muslim country … just to learn a whole different culture and be able to bring that back. You run into people sometimes who have no idea what Islam is, and this initial baseless fear, and it’s good to talk to people about it,” he said.

The Peace Corps mission has three goals: to help interested countries meet their needs for trained men and women; to promote a better understanding of Americans; and to help Americans better understand other peoples.

“I think dialogue and listening and understanding people — that’s big with Peace Corps,” Brown said. “If you can’t learn to understand and look at the situation and find a way to work within it and possibly effect some change, you’re not going to force people into that. You have to be open, and you have to listen first. You can’t go in and just start talking and make change. That’s something that I learned there, and I think, as a country, we are not doing a very good job of listening and understanding.”

The Peace Corps leaves such an indelible mark on the lives of participants that Trimble and Baldwin haven’t ruled out future stints.

“You will have some of the best and worst times of your life as a volunteer — you’ll be very lonely on one day, and the next day you’ll have a fantastic, amazing experience that can only happen when you’re deeply committed to living in your community and living like a local,” Trimble said. “The good thing is I’m just getting started. I’m definitely not ruling out a Peace Corps service later in life. I want to keep that as a possibility.”

Advice for those considering joining the ranks of the Corps?

“Why not? Every single experience you have, no matter where you are in the world, is going to have an impact on your life,” Trimble said.

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