Peace Corps volunteers making a difference in the Philippines

In October 1961, the first Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Manila to serve as teachers’ aides in rural elementary schools across the Philippines. The country was among the first to receive those who answered President John F. Kennedy’s call to service.

On a 50-kilometer drive to a training center in Los Baños, Brenda Brown Schoonover vividly remembers, children stood in the rain with “Welcome President Kennedy’s Peace Corps” signs and villagers stopped them more than a dozen times along the way for traditional meriendas (refreshments). “It was very, very moving,” said Schoonover, later a U.S. ambassador to Togo.

More than 8,800 Americans have followed in the footsteps of those first 128 volunteers. Some train teachers, but others protect coral reefs and marine sanctuaries, help farmers improve crop yields, spur economic development in poor communities, and help children and families facing difficulties.

Currently, some 180 volunteers are doing this work in concert with their Filipino counterparts.

While volunteers customarily serve two years, the Peace Corps also sends so-called Response Volunteers with special skills to the Philippines on short-term assignments including disaster preparedness.

Morgan Corey, a marine scientist, spent 2017 on the island of Pilar to establish a fish-catch monitoring program in two marine sanctuaries on which local fisherfolk depend for their livelihood. To her surprise, she also got deeply involved with a trash recycling project. But “after all, everything is connected. Without proper waste management, the trash created on land eventually ends up in the ocean,” she wrote.

Man and group of children with painted faces (Courtesy of Justin Cagaoan)
Peace Corps volunteer Justin Cagaoan’s first host family welcomes him back to Subic, where he trained in 2013. They painted their faces for a game they had been playing. (Courtesy photo)

Justin Cagaoan, 28, spent 2012–2014 as a social worker and teacher at Casa Miani, a Catholic home for poor and abandoned boys in Sorsogon City. He stays in touch with some of those youths on Facebook and on visits to the Philippines in his work for Chemonics International, an international development company.

He believes the volunteer stint made a difference in both the kids’ lives and his own.

“I watched these boys grow over two years. Just being a constant in somebody’s life was meaningful,” said the Minnesota native, whose father emigrated from the Philippines. “And it helped me learn a lot more about my culture and background.”

While the first Peace Corps volunteers lived together in small groups, today’s volunteers stay with host families, the better to become deeply integrated into community life. Some learn not just Filipino but local languages such as Cebuano, Bikol-Naga, Hiligaynon, Ilokano and Sorsoganon.

Long legacy

Nick Cullather, a University of Indiana historian and former Fulbright scholar in the Philippines, remembers hearing an American Foreign Service officer with a Brooklyn accent on a morning radio talk show in Cebu. The officer was speaking fluent Cebuano, which he’d picked up in the Peace Corps. Referring to both the Peace Corps and the long-running Fulbright program, Cullather said, “That long legacy has impacts to this day.”

For Schoonover and for Maureen Carroll, another pioneer, the legacy lives on in the form of scholarships awarded by the Peace Corps Alumni Foundation for Philippine Development, which has raised nearly $700,000 since 1983 and sent more than 200 young people to college.

Carroll co-edited a nearly 500-page book of remembrances, Answering Kennedy’s Call: Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Philippines, that the original volunteers wrote in 2011 for the 50th anniversary.

The original groups and their assignments were hastily thrown together, said Carroll, who became the Peace Corps’ director for Botswana. “You had to find a niche and make something work.”

“It was a test for the program’s survival,” she said. “The Peace Corps is here today because the first programs that went out made it happen.”