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Peace Corps volunteers continue commitment to community service

As part of seven months of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps’ founding, returnees have shared their life-changing and world-shrinking experiences through displays of cultural artifacts from countries where they served.

“We value this inexpensive government program that sends goodwill ambassadors around the globe with an annual budget that is less than the cost of a single fighter jet,” said Kay Dixon, a local returnee.

Ira Amstadter
Ira Amstadter is one of the local Peace Corps
volunteer returnees.

Part of the role of Peace Corps volunteers is to expand the volunteer’s awareness and bring that experiential knowledge home, said Ira Amstadter of Express Employment Professionals, president of the local Returned Volunteers Group.

“So much of what we do here has powerful impact on the rest of the world, often with unintended consequences—good and bad. Our circumstance of birth brings us untold opportunity and treasure. Most of the world does not live as we do, and there is much to be learned as we strive for a more balanced world and healthy planet,” he said.

Returnees want opportunities to speak at congregations, faith groups, nonprofits and community groups to share insights from their experiences in other cultures.

 “I learned that if I build a bridge of friendship and understanding between my community and the world, it facilitates peace,” said Vickie Scott-Woodley, who went to Jamaica in 1993 when she was 54.

“People wonder why we left the wealth of America to live with them in poverty,” she said.  “I went to say Americans care.”

Kay Dixon
Kay Dixon, Peace Corps returnee

Kay went in 1962, a year after the Peace Corps was established, inspired by former President John Kennedy, saying:

• “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”

• “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

She had never been on a plane when she flew to Colombia after graduating in liberal arts at Juniata College, a Church of the Brethren school in Huntington, Pa.

“The Peace Corps was modeled after the Brethren Volunteer Service, except it was not an alternate to military service,” said Kay, who grew up Presbyterian and now attends St. Augustine Catholic Church in Spokane.

In the midst of civil rights and peace movements, which began in the 1960s, the Peace Corps was an adventure in public service.  She passed on a commitment to serve to her daughters.

“The world seemed big then.  With the Peace Corps, I saw another part of the world, and the world grew smaller,” she said. “It’s a people-to-people program.  Since I went, the world has been my neighborhood.” 

Ira’s Peace Corps experience began years of public service in Africa.  He said it’s where many who work in diplomacy, government programs, the United Nations, aid agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) “cut their teeth.”  Working in a developing country can be challenging, requiring a sense of human and resiliency skills.

“The Peace Corps experience helps you find these in yourself,” he said.

During her term, Kay met her husband, Kevin, who was also in the Peace Corps in Colombia.  Vickie met her husband, Delroy (Barry) Woodley, in Jamaica.  Ira went to Zaire in 1981 when he was 27, and years later met his wife, Susan, on a plane.

Along with working beside people in developing countries, volunteers make friends with other volunteers and find they have an instant bond with other returnees they meet.  Part of their role continues after their two-year term with the expectation that they will tell about the country and culture  where they served.

The Inland Northwest is home to 115 of the United States’ 200,000 returnees.  Many are in the Inland Northwest Peace Corps Association (INPCA).  Since 1961, Washington has had the third most Peace Corps volunteers, after California and New York.

Experiences of Kay, Vickie and Ira give a glimpse into the Peace Corps, whose volunteers make a difference through education programs, community development, youth work, environmental awareness, health education, business development, agricultural production, fishing projects, HIV/AIDS initiatives and food security.  They serve two-year terms, so their efforts will be sustainable after they leave.

Kay worked in urban community development and public health, distributing CARE food products and teaching people to use products, like powdered milk, so they wouldn’t sell them on the black market or feed them to their chickens.

Vickie

Vickie Scott Woodley

Vickie, who lived in Spokane since she was two, wanted to go into the Peace Corps in its early years, but she married, raised her two daughters and worked in business before going from 1994 to 1997.  Inspired by former President Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, who went when she was in her 80s, Vickie decided she could go later. 

When she went, a woman in her 80s was on her fourth term and a man in his 70s was on his third.  Many older volunteers are assigned to Jamaica where they are close if there are health needs. 

Vickie worked two years as a business consultant to develop micro-enterprise in Jamaica, using her experience in business and finance.  She extended two years to serve at a street kids’ center.

Since returning, she has worked through AmeriCorps a year with Habitat for Humanity and a year with the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane.

“Life is about what you do to give back,” she said.

Ira went to Zaire to teach at a veterinary school in a diamond-mining area.  He learned to be flexible, because people signed up for the school, but really wanted to mine.  With no students, he was reassigned to a remote area in the Masisi mountains of Eastern Zaire to work with herders.

Kay said that after they served in the Peace Corps, her husband, Kevin, worked five years in Saudi Arabia, so their four children would “experience the world as their neighborhood and appreciate the freedom and opportunities available to Americans.”  Two daughters went into the Peace Corps—to Nicaragua and Niger—and all have been involved with social services and travel.

They settled on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. For several years, Kevin was a property manager and Kay, an instructional designer for software development companies.  Last year, they relocated to Spokane to be near a daughter.  Kevin volunteers at their grandchildren’s school.  Kay volunteers with Encore, a post Peace Corps service volunteer program.

In the Peace Corps, she saw that churches may not always “do the right thing.”  It was hard for her, because she “was raised in faith and believes it’s important to have faith, moral, spiritual and ethical values.” Sometimes the volunteers could do something.

After CARE had given her community a machine to make bricks, a priest controlled its use.  Her team needed the priest’s support to work in the community, so they went to the bishop.  With his support, they invited their Catholic Peace Corps friends and the priest to tea to discuss use of the machine. The tea was successful, and the team was able to use the machine, as well as work in the barrio with the priest’s support.

Kay and Kevin have been back twice.  In 1974, they volunteered with Partners for America to organize a basketball coaches exchange program.  In 2007, the President of Colombia invited all Peace Corps volunteers who had served from 1961 until 1980s, when volunteers were removed because of local violence.  In 2007, the president showed that the government had restored peace, and last year the Peace Corps re-established programs there teaching English.

Until Vickie went to Jamaica from 1993 to 1997, all she knew was Spokane and her work in business management.

She first studied psychology, then business management, but graduated from Washington State University in 1967 with a degree in communication. 

As she started her Peace Corps terms, she planned management training with flip charts and Powerpoint.  In teaching small merchants, such as grocery-store owners, shoemakers and dressmakers, she soon found that her main lesson was for them to keep their personal money in their right pockets and their business money in their left pockets.

“They were hard working,” she said.  “For them, survival meant working independently in business.  I worked with NGOs lending to small business startups, helping the businesses develop management plans, setting aside income to repay loans and do marketing.”

Vickie, who has attended Unity Church at 29th and Bernard for 30 years, said she was placed in Montego Bay because there was a Unity church there.  Most Jamaicans are Seventh-Day Adventist or Pentecostal.

“My beliefs led me to be involved in civil rights, to oppose the Vietnam War, to help transition people from jail, and to promote interracial relations in Spokane,” she said.

As a member of INPCA, she continues to give back, helping with KSPS phone banks, Second Harvest, a church shoe project, a Niger bike project, World Relief refugees and Habitat for Humanity.

“We never stop needing to serve.  We never run out of things to do,” said Vickie, now a grandmother and great grandmother.

After Ira graduated in 1976 from the University of Illinois in animal science/animal behavior, he had trained elephants for three years at a zoo near Chicago.

His interest in the Peace Corps was sparked by reading Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of the Peace Corps mission developers with President John Kennedy and Sargent Shriver.  Ira said Hubert Humphrey first proposed the idea.

Ira was also motivated by the Jewish teaching, “tikkun olan,” a responsibility “to repair the world.”

“I wanted to go to Africa to see where elephants walked. Somehow the wildlife shows I was raised on left out the people part.  I found warm and wonderful—though materially impoverished—people with incredible spirit.”

Working with an isolated cattle cooperative, he pulled many calves and wormed many cattle, while promoting sustainable pasture usage.

After the Peace Corps, Ira lived in Africa five years, including a year in Rwanda administering food aid with USAID. He was also a field representative for Africa with a cooperative organization. 

In 1994, he moved to Spokane becoming a franchise of Express Employment Professionals, which matches companies with people they need.

Like other returnees, he is involved in the community—with Rotary 21, Leadership Spokane, World Relief, the Inland Northwest Peace Corps Association and Temple Beth Shalom.

“People do many wonderful things in Africa,” he said.  “When children’s parents die, they are not orphans, because children in a village are everyone’s children.”

He closed with a thought from Thomas Merton:  “If you are at peace there are at least some people at peace in the world.”

For information, visit inpca.net or www.peacecorps.gov, or call Ira at 701-0226, Vickie at 535-6070 or Kay at 868-0302.