A week set aside to inspire, recognize and encourage, National Volunteer Week is April 6 to 13. The week serves as a reminder that everyone can make a difference.
President John F. Kennedy saw the opportunities when he challenged young Americans in 1961 to ask, "what you can do for your country?" Within weeks of his inauguration, Kennedy established the Peace Corps, hopeful that trained Americans with skilled manpower could be sent to foreign countries to foster world peace.
Within five years, programs were in place in 55 countries with more than 15,000 volunteers. Early corps communications read that tasks would be "arduous, sometime(s) hazardous and frequently frustrating. They will require stamina, courage and maturity. But they will enrich your life, as they will give sign to the world that we are a responsible nation."
To date, more than 215,000 volunteers have served in 139 host countries around the world. Currently, 7,209 trained volunteers serve in 65 countries. The average age of individuals is 28.7 years and 8 percent are older than 50. Volunteers typically serve for two years following their stateside training. Volunteers receive a housing and living stipend, allowing each to live similarly to the people of the community.
Many returned Peace Corps volunteers work for the Peace Corp agency and find opportunities in government, and across a variety of fields and industries. A developing trend is for couples who met in the Peace Corps to volunteer once again when they retire.
Currently, 300 Peace Corps volunteers hail from Illinois, making it sixth among the states, reported Jessica Mayle, public affairs coordinator for the Midwest region in Chicago.
The Peace Corps is an integral part of the global community, helping to eradicate disease, feed the hungry and address worldwide challenges. American volunteers return with cross-cultural, leadership, teaching, language and community skills that position them for advanced education and professional opportunities, states its website, peacecorps.gov.
In the early years of the Peace Corps, Lisle resident Tony Mankus served in Ecuador from 1968 to 1970. Born in Lithuania, Mankus immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a child, having spent time with his family in a refugee camp during the waning years of World War II.
Like many of the young college graduates early on in the Peace Corps, Mankus joined because he liked JFK and was idealistic. His job in the corps was to evaluate and write feasibility studies of towns requesting corps volunteers for the director of the Peace Corps in Ecuador. He also edited its bilingual magazine, the "El Ecuador."
"The experience taught me about another culture and broadened my outlook," said Mankus, who developed his writing skills. He devotes an entire chapter to the Peace Corps in his memoir, "Where Do I Belong? An Immigrant's Quest for Identity," published in 2013.
Mankus came to the Midwest in a job transfer in 1980, and moved to Lisle with his wife, Margarita, and children six years later. Today, he is a principal in the law firm Mankus and Marchan in Lisle.
Anne Gaven Murphy
Having grown up in Lisle, graduated Lisle schools, Benet Academy and Cornell University, Anne Gaven Murphy served with the Peace Corps in Côte d'Ivoire from 2000 to 2002. Her experience taught her to be independent and sensitive to other cultures and to appreciate the amazing strength of women.
"Many people join the Peace Corps hoping to teach something to others, but we almost always learn more than we impart," Murphy said.
"I was so surprised to learn how easy it was to get used to no running water or electricity, but how hard it could be to live in a completely new culture and always be 'on.' I vowed to never, ever complain about doing laundry with a machine after washing all my clothes by hand for two years."
Murphy's stint in the corps led her to pursue a career working abroad. She earned her master's degree in foreign service from Georgetown University and now lives and works in Uganda as a health foreign service officer with USAID.
"They told us the Peace Corps opened doors, and they were certainly right," Murphy said. "I realized after my service that I was able to apply Peace Corps to any job interview I had; could answer questions on managing projects, writing proposals, budgeting, community buy-in, navigating cultural differences and working in challenging environments."
Former Lisle resident Albert Tan, who graduated from Lisle High School in 2002, joined the Peace Corps after graduating from DePaul University. He served in Kavadarci, Macedonia, from 2006 to 2008 and now lives in New York City.
"After growing up in such a nice community, I didn't want to take that experience for granted," Tan said. "My parents really encouraged me to see how others live in the world.
"The Peace Corps motto is that it is the toughest job that you will learn to love," Tan said. "There is a curiosity of the world that connects Peace Corps volunteers, which I would best describe as being comfortable being uncomfortable, which is a worthwhile life skill."
Tan volunteered as an English teacher at a secondary school for a year, and then a business development volunteer at the local music school. He was instrumental in writing a grant that saved the music school, and he helped run a boys leadership summer camp.
"You really learn a lot about humanity in the Peace Corps," Tan said. "The people I met did not have much money, since 33 percent of the population is unemployed, yet they had family, food and friends. They were the most welcoming people I ever met."
Living in Lisle during his teen years, Daniel Wan, who now lives in Alexandria, Va., joined the Peace Corps believing everyone should be a world citizen. He served in Bulgaria from 2010 to 2012 as a community development volunteer.
"Confining our responsibilities to our own backyard doesn't make sense in our increasingly interconnected world," Wan said. "Given the disparity in wealth between America and developing countries, noblesse obliges applies even to the most ordinary American."
Wan was pleased he was able to share with his students the big world outside the small Bulgarian village of 2,000 residents. He also learned from them about failure and that sometimes, despite your best efforts, some variables fail and that can be OK, too.
The first Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver once said, "The Peace Corps represents some, if not all, of the best virtues in this society. It stands for everything that America has ever stood for. It stands for everything we believe in and hope to achieve in the world."
Information on joining the Peace Corps is at youtube.com/peacecorps; on Facebook at facebook.com/peacecorps and on Flickr at flicker.com/photos/peacecorps, or call (855) 855-1961 or email Chicago@peacecorps.gov.