LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Fifty years ago today, a presidential candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, called young Americans to offer their talents and their energies to the world in what would eventually be called the Peace Corps. Here he is speaking at the University of Michigan.
Senator JOHN F. KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): And how many of you who are going to be doctor are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers - how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?
WERTHEIMER: At one time, 139 countries hosted the young American volunteers. Ghana and Tanzania were the first countries to welcome them. And we have two volunteers who served in those countries here with us. Alison Stow is 28. She was a recent volunteer, went to West Africa in 2007.
Also joining us is Gene Schreiber, who was a volunteer in 1961. He's 72 now.
Welcome to our program.
Ms. ALISON STOW (Former Volunteer, Peace Corps): Thank you.
Mr. GENE SCHREIBER (Former Volunteer, Peace Corps): Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: Now, Gene, let's start with you. You were part of the first volunteer group sent out by the Peace Corps. You were assigned to Tanganyika. Now we call that country Tanzania. Could you just give us a very quick sense of your first impression of that country?
Mr. SCHREIBER: It was spectacular. It was big. You have to understand, it's larger than Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas combined. And we did our last month of training at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. And it was wide open. It was in the middle of the big game area. The people were very, very friendly and poor. This was a very underdeveloped country. They had not yet gained their independence from Great Britain, and that's why we were there - 35 of us - to build roads and do surveying. And we had geological mapping.
WERTHEIMER: Alison, you just returned from West Africa, serving in Ghana and then later in Mali. What about your first impression of Ghana? I mean, do you remember getting off the plane and...
Ms. STOW: Absolutely. I remember the smell, first and foremost, the heat, the population. There are people all over the place in southern Ghana, in particular. I was surprised at the level of development and infrastructure that the country had. Parts of Accra look like parts some of our American cities, surprisingly.
WERTHEIMER: What about the mission of promoting peace and understanding? Did either one of you feel that you ever were actually able to do something like that?
Alison, what about you?
Ms. STOW: Understanding, definitely - cultural understanding in both directions. I'm now back in the U.S. educating colleagues and coworkers on what Africa really is, or what my experience with Africa really is. And it's not impoverished to the same extent that we imagine it.
But I wanted to mention that probably, very similar to what happened 50 years ago with Peace Corps - and it's been the same case ever since - is the severe cultural isolation that we face as volunteers. I think very few volunteers are with fellow Americans in the field. And you'll still deal with, on a daily basis, the cultural isolation.
WERTHEIMER: So I would imagine that computers would make it a little bit easier than letters.
Ms. STOW: Yeah. The support system has increased because of that, as well.
Mr. SCHREIBER: Needless to say...
WERTHEIMER: Gene. Go ahead, Gene.
Mr. SCHREIBER: ...that there weren't any computers in our day.
WERTHEIMER: Of course, not. Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHREIBER: And nor were there faxes or teletypes or anything else. You were over there, and you would write your family on an airmail piece of stationery that you...
WERTHEIMER: Those little blue, flimsy things. Yes, I remember those.
Mr. SCHREIBER: Exactly. And...
Ms. STOW: We still have those. Those are still in existence.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHREIBER: I haven't seen those in years. But - and it would take - to send a package would take six weeks if your family wanted to send you something.
WERTHEIMER: Right. Now, Gene, you were in Africa as a young man in the '60s. Did you think that 50 years later the Peace Corps would still be going?
Mr. SCHREIBER: Absolutely not. I think the general consensus was we were thrilled if we get through the two years, and then maybe we'd go a while longer. We didn't give it a lot of thought because it was a pioneer type of spirit. And you go and do something new. You don't really expect it to last 15 years, let alone a government agency which was very, very different.
WERTHEIMER: So, Gene Schreiber, he's in New Orleans. That's where we've reached him - was launched by the Peace Corps. Alison Stow in Rochester, New York, was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa.
Thank you both very much for talking with us.
Ms. STOW: Thank you, Linda.
Mr. SCHREIBER: Thank you, Linda.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.