Wednesday, Sept. 22, marks the day 60 years ago that President John F. Kennedy signed into law legislation creating the Peace Corps.

With this act, we deepened our nation’s ability to live out our key values: commitment to our global neighbors, community service, poverty alleviation and learning from those we hope to serve. I am proud to be one of more than 2,285 New Mexicans who have served in the Peace Corps, joining more than 240,000 Americans nationwide over these last 60 years.

I entered the Peace Corps hoping to bring my skills and commitment to communities around the world, and I left enriched and grateful for what I had learned from those I had come to serve. The goal of my Peace Corps project was to develop a reforestation of degraded lands (like worn-out sugar cane fields), a program that offered both economic (firewood and building materials) and environmental (soil restoration, biodiversity conservation and, in retrospect, climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration) benefits to the local and global community.

This involved building a seedling nursery, developing an outreach program and training local people to take over the project before I left. In return, this activity launched my professional career as an international forester, where I worked on environmental projects in many developing countries where volunteers provided the much-appreciated technical assistance. Because this Peace Crops experience was key to my professional development, I felt compelled to write this piece in celebration of this anniversary.

And this 60th anniversary is unlike any other, mainly because the COVID-19 pandemic has required the evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers from all 61 countries in which Americans were serving. As a result we will observe this anniversary without volunteers in the field. This pause has sparked an opportunity to reflect on what the Peace Corps has accomplished and envision what should come next, which is what the National Peace Corps Association is doing through a series of nationwide conversations about the future of the Peace Corps in a changing and, in many cases, more dangerous world.

Our community of returned Peace Corps volunteers envisions an agency that: advances global peace and understanding; seeks innovative solutions to shared global problems; and responds to shifting needs and expectations in the developing world. Specifically, returned volunteers want to see an agency that joins other serious institutions in addressing inter alia: environmental degradation, climate change, agricultural sustainability and improved health care and educational opportunities — and they want an agency that genuinely listens to global partners so the institution can provide the best America has to offer.

Over the last 60 years, nearly a quarter of a million Peace Corps volunteers have made a tremendous contribution to the individuals and communities in which they served, and to our planet. You can join in celebrating the Peace Corps’ 60th anniversary and ensure its resurgence by urging your member of Congress to co-sponsor the Peace Corps Re-authorization Act (H.R. 1456).

Peace Corps service is needed now more than ever.

Bob Kirmse served in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and Costa Rica from 1970-73 and is a resident of Santa Fe.

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