When Loret Miller Ruppe travels on the job to foreign countries she has an unusual experience for an American government official. Director of the Peace Corps since 1981, she is constantly met by cheering people--eight deep sometimes, she says--expressing gratitude and support for what the volunteers do. When she meets people in this country, however, she often finds a more bemused response: "Peace Corps? Oh! Is it still around?"
It is. It has been around for 24 years and has sent more than 100,000 volunteers out to work in 91 developing nations. Today there are about 5,400 volunteers serving in 60 countries, and among them are the children of former volunteers.
Literally into its second generation, the Peace Corps has gone through some changes. At the same time it has experienced something of a revitalization--as was evident when 20,000 people responded to its televised January appeal for 600 volunteers to work in programs directed against famine in Africa.
News of the changes and revitalization was one of the reasons Loret Ruppe visited the Los Angeles branch of what she calls "the Peace Corps family" recently. She wanted to spread the good news and enlist their support in increasing public awareness she told them.
The Federal Building in Westwood is neither a festive nor a homey place. But Peace Corps volunteers--past, present or future--are nothing if not adaptable and innovative. So several hundred of them made do one recent evening with a colorless, high-tech, utilitarian 11th-floor conference room where they had their family reunion of sorts with Ruppe. They draped hand-woven Colombian cloth over the lecturn, set homemade cookies out on the refreshment table, filled up every folding chair in the room, sat on the floor and stood in the back of the soon-sweltering approximation of the tropics.
Judging by those at the reunion, a diverse group has been responding to those "toughest job you'll ever love" ads over the years. Among them were:
--Former Pakistani Mohammed Khan, "Morocco I" (meaning the first group to go to Morocco), now in his 40s and a superintendent with the National Park Service and in 1962, the first naturalized citizen to serve.
--Amy Morrison of Santa Barbara, in her early 20s and about to receive her master's degree in public health from UCLA, and off to the Peace Corps soon, as yet not sure to which country.
--William Lennox, 44, currently serving in agricultural extension in Guatemala but home for a few weeks to attend to some family business at his former avocado ranch in Oxnard.
--Doris and Lee Morton, both 55, a retired school administrator and nurse respectively, living in Palm Springs but about to leave for the Gambia for two years, victims, they said, of wanderlust and a desire to "make a contribution."
--Bea Alford, 82, sporting her "I Refuse to Grow Up" button and telling everyone she has been with the Peace Corps for 18 years, four as a volunteer in Belize and Jamaica, 14 as a recruiter at home. She will go back to Belize in June, her third visit, for her godson's graduation and said of the Peace Corps, "it gets in your blood."
It seems to have gotten into Ruppe's blood too.
'A Great Job'
"I have this great job," she told them, "where everybody thanks me for your work."
Most recently it was Africans who had been thanking her, she said. She had spent two weeks in March visiting four drought-stricken countries, among them Mali where she had accompanied Vice President Bush.
Some of the changes that are taking place in the Peace Corps, she said, involve a more coordinated, long-term, teamwork approach to problems in developing countries. These changes will first be seen in Africa. As part of a need to make itself more effective in the '80s and profit from its 24 years of experience, the Peace Corps has launched an "Africa Food Systems Initiative," to help reverse "the 20-year decline in per capita food output," she said. Now in the planning stages, it will start as a pilot project in Mali and in Zaire.
Next spring 100 to 120 volunteers will be sent to those two countries to begin what the Peace Corps perceives as a 10- to 20-year effort. Specialists with "hands-on" skills in agriculture, fisheries, irrigation and energy conservation will work with generalists specifically trained for programs in selected regions. Their work will be coordinated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Agency for International Development, and with several private voluntary organizations, she said. At the end of their two-year service, they will be replaced by new volunteers with no gap in service in between. Such carry-over has not always been the case, and that is a weakness the Peace Corps wants to correct, she said.
Adjusting Their Policies