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Peace Corps volunteer totals reach 40-year high

By Ed O'Keefe

More people are volunteering with the Peace Corps than at any point since 1970, the agency said Thursday as it touted a 13 percent year-to-year increase in headcount.

As of Sept. 30, 8,655 Peace Corps volunteers were working in 77 host countries, up almost 1,000 volunteers from 2009, the agency said. The new total falls a little short of the 9,000 volunteers who worked with the Peace Corps in 59 countries in 1970.

The agency attributed the jump to new host countries, extended volunteer stays and a $400 million operating budget -- its largest ever. The Peace Corps reopened programs in Colombia, Indonesia and Sierra Leone and re-opened its suspended program in Madagascar, the agency said.

The agency's volunteer headcount fell to a low of 5,380 in 1982 but climbed steadily through the 1980s, according to agency statistics. It has yet to reach a goal of 10,000 volunteers per year that was set by Congress in 1985.

The average age of Peace Corps volunteers is 28, but seven percent are over age 50, and the oldest volunteer is 86. Nineteen percent of volunteers are minorities, 60 percent are women, and 90 percent hold at least a bachelor's degree.

Education remains the most popular sector of service for volunteers, but others work on health and HIV/AIDS prevention, business development, youth development and environmental and agricultural projects. Volunteers are almost evenly divided across Latin America, Africa and Europe/Asia, the agency said.

"Every day, Peace Corps volunteers strive to make a difference and have improved the lives of millions of people - not just in communities around the world, but also in their local communities in the United States once they return home," said Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams. "This is the legacy of [President John F. Kennedy's] concept of international service, an idea that continues to capture the imagination of thousands of service-minded Americans today."

Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, said the new numbers "reflect the community's long-held aspiration that the Peace Corps grow strategically and effectively." Current and former Peace Corps volunteers often refer to each other as members of the "Peace Corps community." NPCA represents returning Peace Corps volunteers and provides networking and mentoring options to members. The community's lobbying efforts helped secure last year's $60 million increase in agency appropriations, Quigley said.

More than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries since Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961. It became an independent federal agency in 1981 and will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding next March.

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By Ed O'Keefe  | October 28, 2010; 2:37 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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