I Gave Peace a Chance: Memoir by Terri Elders

 

"There is an alternative to war. It has been with us forever." –Sargent Shriver

“My Great Uncle Loring once shook hands with Abraham Lincoln,” my grandmother used to brag, her face beaming with pride. “This was right after the Emancipation Proclamation. And everybody in our family has voted Republican since." 

I never suspected I'd be the first in the family to stray from that faithful fold. But at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy addressed a crowd of shivering students on the steps of the Union at the University of Michigan. In his speech, delivered just weeks before the national elections, he'd challenged these students to devote two years of their lives to helping people in developing countries. 

When I heard Kennedy's ringing words on the radio later that morning, I tried to picture myself boarding a plane and heading for Tanganyika where I would teach toddlers to read. Though married and a young mother, I envied those students who might have this chance to serve. 

But it was never going to happen, I told myself. First, it was unlikely Kennedy could get elected. Nobody in my family or my husband’s thought that the young man from Massachusetts could divert enough votes from frontrunner Nixon. I myself had registered as a Republican when I’d turned 21.  

Second, I was married, had a toddler, and was working towards a degree to become an English teacher. When I mentioned Kennedy’s proposal to my husband, he just laughed. “There’s children right here in Los Angeles County who need to learn to read. You don’t have to go overseas to make your dreams come true,” he pointed out. 

When I went to the voting booth on election day, I hesitated. Until that very day, I hadn’t made up my mind.  But as I entered my booth, I made a decision. Even if I couldn’t have that chance to serve, I’d still advocate for those who could. So I voted for Kennedy, knowing that my husband would tease me later about our votes cancelling each other. 

A few months later, I was privately thrilled to hear JFK’s inaugural address. I had always scoffed at the notion that I belonged to a so-called Silent Generation, an uninspiring label for those young adults of the Eisenhower years. Now Kennedy insisted that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans, one that could be vocal and active. I vowed to be part of that generation. 

My husband had been right, of course, about people needing help at home as well as overseas. I continued with my studies, eventually getting a teaching credential and settling in to become a high school English and journalism teacher right where we lived, in Long Beach, CA. 

The day Kennedy was shot, I sent students repeatedly to the nurse’s office for more boxes of Kleenex. I turned on the classroom radio and we listened together as the horrific story unfolded. I thought about Great- Great-Great-Uncle Loring, and wished I’d had the opportunity to shake Kennedy’s hand. Now it would never be.  

A few years later, after riots rocked our inner cities, I abandoned teaching to become a caseworker to help rebuild South Central Los Angeles. My parents had a tough time understanding this. They remembered the depression years, and seemed to think I was working in a soup kitchen. No matter how much I tried to explain about Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the Equal Opportunity Act, they insisted upon telling friends, “Terri’s working for The Dole.”  I suspect they imagined me wrapped in a big white apron, ladling out soup.  Eventually I returned to graduate school and earned an MSW at UCLA. 

                                                                              Dominican Republic 1994

                                                                              Dominican Republic 1994

Then finally, at 50, divorced, my son grown, I joined the Peace Corps. Friends raised both eyebrows and issues: “Aren’t you a bit, how shall I put this, uhhhh, old?” "Do you think you’re up for mosquitoes and pit latrines?” "You know, don’t you, that older people have a lot of trouble learning new languages?” 

I developed some pat rejoinders. Peace Corps told me that a number of seniors join. I would most likely be placed in towns or cities, not living in a mud hut. I could relearn my high school Spanish and college French, if need be. 

                                                                      Seychelles 1995

                                                                      Seychelles 1995

I joined, rejoined and then extended. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I hacked open coconuts with a machete outside my house in Belize City. I clung to my counterpart as we raced on her motorcycle to get across streams before they flooded in the province of San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic. I helped paint murals on the Youth Center fence with teens on a rare dry afternoon when the monsoon winds had died down in Mont Fleuri, Seychelles. 

I gained more than I gave. I learned to appreciate living with less. I found fulfillment in working with people from every walk of life, from government officials to village entrepreneurs. 

After a decade overseas, I returned to the States and became a health programming and training specialist at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington DC. In this capacity I helped strengthen efforts of Volunteers in dozens of countries to address malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, and the infectious diseases that lead to high infant mortality rates. I heard gray wolves howl on the steppes outside Ulan Bator on the spring equinox in Mongolia. I thrilled to the spontaneous singing of Samoan chiefs and missionaries at a training session in Apia. I explored the corners of the earth, Guyana, Uzbekistan, Thailand, St. Vincent, Bulgaria. What a world indeed the Peace Corps opened to me.

 
                                                                              Samoa 2002

                                                                              Samoa 2002

On January 29, 2002, Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law of JFK, and founding director of the Peace Corps, appeared at the Directors Forum at Peace Corps Headquarters to address a packed audience of about 200 staffers. Frail, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, Shriver nonetheless read in a strong voice from his notes and emphasized that peace is more than just the absence of war. He described peace as "living together based on what we have in common. Our differences matter less than our kinship.”  I took notes. 

After he spoke, he shook hands with dozens of us, nodding as we told him where we had served as Volunteers. “I’m honoured to shake your hand,” I told him. “I owe my whole life to you and to President Kennedy.”  “I’m honoured to shake yours,” he said, squeezing my hand between his. 

 

In the past couple of months I've had several conversations with friends who've expressed interest in serving overseas. They range in age from early twenties to mid-sixties. I continue to participate in local recruitment events. So here I am today, still advocating for the Peace Corps…all because of a campaign speech by JFK over fifty years ago.

Surely Grandma would forgive me my 1960 vote. She, like Shriver, could recognize kinship. I picture her now in heaven, shaking hands with Abraham Lincoln…and John F. Kennedy. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terri Elders, LCSW, served with Peace Corps in Belize, Dominican Republic and Seychelles. Additionally she was one of 272 Peace Corps Crisis Corps Volunteers who worked the Gulf States in FEMA's Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort.

Her non-fiction stories have appeared in over a hundred anthologies, including multiple editions of the Chicken Soup for the Soul and Not Your Mother's Book series. She co-edited Not Your Mother's Book…On Travel. 

After a nearly three-decade odyssey, she recently returned to her native California. She's happy to be back near her son, old friends, and her beloved Pacific Ocean. She blogs at http://atouchoftarragon.blogspot.com/