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Celebrating a 50-year mission

Former Peace Corps volunteers gather for a reunion at UCLA, where many did their training.

March 02, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Ed Oshiro will soon embark on his sixth Peace Corps assignment, this time Zambia. I feel alive working in these places, he said.
Ed Oshiro will soon embark on his sixth Peace Corps assignment, this time… (Kevin P. Casey / For the Los…)

Julian Martin was in a small town in Maryland learning how to make heat-seeking missiles when he dropped everything to answer John F. Kennedy's call.

"How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana?" the then-presidential candidate had asked a group of college students in a speech a few months earlier. "How many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?"

In 1961, Martin, a chemical engineer, was among the first to apply for a new program, the Peace Corps. And within months, the 24-year-old and nearly 50 other volunteers found themselves at UCLA, training to spend the next two years teaching in Nigeria.

Deep in the rainforest of an African nation he had previously known little about, he met his wife and had his first child.

"It's the best thing that's ever happened to me," said Martin, now 74. "I learned more in those two years than in any other stretch of my life."

Since Kennedy launched the federal program to bring healthcare, economic and educational aid to the most impoverished corners of the world, more than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries.

Hundreds of those participants from across the country will reunite at UCLA over the next three days to celebrate the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary.

UCLA was one of just a few universities that provided Peace Corps training for the program's early volunteers.

From 1961 to 1969, busload after busload of trainees descended on the campus for rigorous three-month sessions, made up of 12-hour days. To get in shape, they did push-ups and sit-ups each morning. They were evaluated psychologically to make sure they were emotionally stable. (Not all made the cut.) Professors who had lived among Pygmies and other African ethnic groups were on hand to teach those heading to Nigeria and Ethiopia the basics of such languages as Igbo, Yoruba and Amharic, while volunteers to Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Peru and Costa Rica got a crash course in Spanish.

One group of volunteers awoke early to attend what they thought would be a reception at the dean's house. But the invitation was a ploy to teach them about the discomforts that awaited them in their host countries. After piling onto a bus, they were left for hours without food or water, and some snapped.

Ed Oshiro, a 23-year-old Japanese American from Hawaii, escaped much of that day's chaos by falling asleep. But passing that test didn't prepare him for what he found when he arrived in a rural village in northern Ghana in 1963.

"I had this idea in my head that they were going to consider me a savior," Oshiro said, from his home in Seattle. "When they didn't, I didn't understand. I thought they were backward and lazy."

For the next 37 years, he said, he lived with a sense of guilt for misjudging the people he was assigned to help. He married, had children and had a great job at a university in Seattle. But deep down, he grew determined to return to the Peace Corps and redeem himself.

In 2001, a few years after taking early retirement, he applied again and was sent to South Africa, then to Samoa, Uganda and Malawi. In the last 10 years, he has done five tours. In April, he starts a sixth — in Zambia.

His Peace Corps focus is on healthcare. But Oshiro says the trips have done more for him than he could ever do for the people he tries to help.

"I feel alive working in these places," he said. "That's where humanity is. It's not in traffic or at the Oscars."

Many volunteers express such feelings and say the Peace Corps shaped their lives and their view of the world. Many shared their memories on the UCLA reunion website.

C.J. Smith Castagnaro, a retired teacher, said her two years in Ethiopia in the mid-1960s made her more resourceful. To drink water, she had to haul it from afar and then boil it. When she had nothing to wear, she bought fabric and sewed her own clothes.

"It really made me grow up," said Castagnaro, who lives in Upland and plans to attend the reunion.

Phu Tranchi, a Los Angeles high school principal who was dispatched in 1997 to a village of mud huts in Kenya, said he came back more socially conscious. Every year, he encourages his students to "be active in the community," he said.

Seth Pickens, a pastor at L.A.'s Zion Hill Baptist Church, said it was on his Peace Corps assignment in Haiti in 2001 that he first got a chance to preach to a church audience.

"I learned that happiness doesn't have anything to do with what you have," Pickens, 33, said. "You could sit on someone's porch on a hot day with nothing to eat or drink in the house and people would still be happy, still cracking jokes."

The program that was threatened by Richard Nixon, then supported by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, now enjoys President Obama's full backing. About one third of applicants are accepted, 60% of them women, and the application process can take a year.

The anniversary comes just weeks after Sargent Shriver, the founding force behind the program, died at 95.

His daughter, Maria Shriver, California's former first lady, said she remembers evenings when hundreds of volunteers filled her family home.

"Daddy was always incredibly proud of all the volunteers," she said.

In April, Ester Dela plans to join the ranks as she departs for two years in Romania. The 28-year-old first grade teacher was laid off in late 2009 and signed up for the Peace Corps after struggling to find steady work.

At home in Culver City, she's been watching old Romanian movies, studying maps and practicing the language.

"I have some anxiety, but mostly I'm excited," she said. "I have no idea what to expect."

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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