, Salem, MA

March 4, 2011

Happy birthday, Peace Corps

Local veterans to celebrate 50 years of America's volunteer service

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

MARBLEHEAD — The flame of idealism burns bright, but it rarely burns long.

The Peace Corps might be an exception.

Founded 50 years ago, it was meant to send out an army of peace, a force for good intended to provide Western technical expertise in some of the world's poorest countries. And it has attracted generations of idealistic Americans eager to help those less fortunate.

A little more than 10 years ago, Alison Williams, 36, of Marblehead was one of them. She served in Mali, a central African country often considered one of the poorest in the world. Her primary skill — she studied photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology — was of little practical use.

But Williams studied a bit of agriculture, combining it with her experience working in a Marblehead nursery, and was able to make an impact helping people learn the art of gardening. Thus, they were able to supplement their own food supply with what they grew on small plots.

On Saturday, she'll mark the birthday of the Peace Corps with a party at her house.

"It's just an idea I had to see if any locals who served in Mali could come," she says. But she's not limiting the guest list — any former Peace Corps volunteer is welcome. Invitations went out to people from places as diverse as Beverly and Dorchester, with service from Mongolia to Ghana.

The National Peace Corps Association, a sort of veterans group for former members, encouraged similar parties throughout the country this week, most of them on Tuesday, the anniversary of the creation of the Peace Corps in 1961. The celebrations varied from potluck gatherings to parties attracting up to 100 people.

"It included 740 house parties around the globe," said Molly Mattessich in the association's Washington office. Like Williams, Mattessich served in Mali. She noted, however, that as many as 200,000 people have gone out as Peace Corps volunteers, showing America's friendliest face to the world.

"You learn you can change a community," she said of the experience.

The two-year commitment can also change the volunteer. It had a profound effect on Williams, who brought back something extraordinary from her overseas venture — husband Lassana Diawara. The couple live in Marblehead now and have two children. Moreover, they've returned to Mali for visits, and Diawara is there now.

"I just fell in love with him right away," Williams said.

Finding fellow Peace Corps veterans can be easier than anyone might think. Williams located one literally right next door in Marblehead, former schools Assistant Superintendent George Gearhardt, who taught in Ghana from 1966 to 1968.

"It was great for me and my friends," Gearhardt said. "But more to the point, we were able to help the country establish new schools." Teaching English, he left behind a better-educated population and good feelings toward Americans.

That still goes on today. Joie Peterson, 23, of Marblehead won't be at Williams' party because she's in Sierra Leone doing just what Gearhardt did 45 years ago, teaching school as a member of the Peace Corps.

"She loves her students," her mom, Pam Peterson, said of the Connecticut College grad. "She is finding it very enjoyable." And that's notwithstanding the lack of electricity and running water.

Another recent Peace Corps volunteer, Judy Gates of Marblehead, is attending a conference at the Kennedy School of Government. She signed up while in her 60s and worked for two years in Mongolia helping, among other things, to begin a system of trash barrels around a city with a major littering problem.

Gates returned home last year, but she counts Mongolia such a positive experience that she wouldn't mind going back.

In addition to the absence of creature comforts and the often difficult areas they are sent to, serving in underdeveloped countries can involve an element of danger. Pam Peterson is a little uneasy with it all, but daughter Joie would not be deterred.

"Her interest," her mom said, "comes of being very idealistic."

Peace Corps people interested in attending Allison Williams' party should call 781-631-1965.