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peace corps volunteer teaching in fiji Peace Corps volunteer Sarah Taylor working with a special education school in Fiji on World Literacy Day in 2009. Taylor is playing a game with students to teach them the "sh" sound. (Photo courtesy Peace Corps)

Peace Corps Still Strong at 50

A commitment to serve inspires teacher to volunteer

By Chloe Jones | null null , null

Until recently, LaToya Miller taught 6th grade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Now she is in Uganda doing the same thing, only without pay. She is also living in a hut with no running water or electricity, learning a new language and a new culture.

The 26-year-old math and social studies teacher has joined the Peace Corps, one of 8,655 volunteers who are serving in 77 host countries. More people than ever are volunteering to serve — 13 percent more than in 2009, and the highest number since 1970.

"I'm going into the Peace Corps because, number one, I want to help people," Miller told the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps in an interview before she left the U.S. "Especially when it comes to being in communities that are underdeveloped. I want to use my skills to help them build up schools and train teachers."

The Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. For the last 50 years, Peace Corps volunteers have worked worldwide building homes and schools, providing medical care, and teaching both adults and children. Corps volunteers serve for 27 months. They can be assigned to anywhere in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, the Pacific Islands, or the Middle East.

To work for the Peace Corps, you have to be at least 18 years old, in good health, and a U.S. citizen. Volunteers are usually around 25 when they sign up. The oldest volunteer is currently 80. There is no fee to participate, and since 1961, more than 190,000 people have volunteered and served in more than 139 countries.

Miller will be teaching children in a classroom, but also training other teachers to take over when she leaves. Before that task begins, however, she will spend three months living with a local family.

"When we get to Uganda, we all go to our host families," she said. "We get to know each other and we try to become a Ugandan family."

kid reporter chloe jones with teacher la toya miler
Kid Reporter Chloe Jones with La Toya Miller, a teacher who has quit her job teaching the 6th grade to join the Peace Corps. (Photo courtesy Chloe Jones)

Adapting to a new way of life is a big part of the job says the organization's Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, a former Peace Corp volunteer.

"Peace Corps volunteers live at the same level as the community," Hessler-Radelet said. "So they live in the same kind of houses, they eat the same food, they learn a local language, and they work shoulder to shoulder with the people in their community."

While the structure, goals, and mission of the Peace Corps has not changed for 50 years, technology has. Hassler-Radelet remembers being a volunteer from 1981-83.

"I only had one phone call with my parents the entire two years I was there, and that was on Christmas," she said. "We had to make an appointment at the National Telephone Exchange. We had to go stand in line for several hours and finally I got to talk to my parents for 10 minutes."

Nowadays, volunteers have cell phones and computers, and can email text, blog, or call home — that is, if there is electricity available to charge batteries. Even the schools can be primitive.

"I will be helping them get resources to make things they can use in the classrooms, especially things out of recyclable materials, because they don't have a lot of money," Miller said. "They do have lots of things lying around and I will try to find ways to use those."

While helping the poor in Uganda. Miller says she will also be helping herself.

"I thought it would be a good idea to take the skills I have and build them up there," she said of volunteering for the Peace Corps. She was inspired to join by a friend who served in Yemen. Her friend's stories sent Miller to the Internet for research. "I spent a week reading everything about the Peace Corps, and I knew it was for me," she said.

Most applicants feel a similar commitment to public service, says Hessler-Radelet.

"The Peace Corps continues to capture the imagination of Americans interested in public service," said the Deputy Director. "Applicants aspire to help others and learn."

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