Peace Corps veterans look back 40 years

Dining on a dozen tasty dishes in Ashland this weekend, some two dozen former Peace Corps volunteers remembered the days, 40 years ago, when they worked together, trying to change Sri Lanka, but found it was they who got changed.

"The Sri Lanka people were very gracious accepting advice from us," said Joyce Stanley, who, with her husband Richard hosted the gathering. "Every Peace Corps volunteer got more out of it than we gave. We learned the value of other cultures."

Still able to speak phrases in Sinhalese, the main language of the island nation off India, the "family," as they called themselves, spent long hours preparing complex and amazingly delicious native dishes, sauces and spices, which they positioned around rice and ate with the right hand — no fork, per the custom they learned in 1967-69.

"This is excellent," said host Richard Stanley, referring to both food and friends. "It's like a family reunion."

He helped Sri Lankans build roads and low-cost housing, as well as drill wells with tubes, instead of just holes in the ground.

A joyful Ilene Gelbaum, a nurse in Sri Lanka, worked to control malaria and lend her midwifery knowledge to local women. She decided on joining the Peace Corps when she was 14 and her boyfriend was 16, making it a condition of their marriage that they would both go.

"I was one of the Kennedy idealists. I knew I would do it. It had my name all over it," said Gelbaum, referring to President John F. Kennedy, who created the Peace Corps and called on youth to "ask what you can do for your country."

Gelbaum, who lives in Torrance, Calif., has delivered 5,000 babies since then — and one day got a letter from a boy she delivered, thanking her and saying he was so inspired by her that he became a midwife himself.

The group, which has reunited on the average of once a decade, brushed off any notions of their heroism, instead pointing to how the Peace Corps broadened their appreciation for all people and made them more thoughtful, humble and oriented to service.

"I went back there after the tsunami (2004) and was simply struck by how much the Peace Corps values are the values of my life," said Salem resident Lloyd Chapman, who helped young men build villages in the jungle. "Everything I do in life, I compare it to that. It made me more thoughtful about how I spend my life and I always ask, what would the Sri Lankan people think?"

Each time the group gets together, Chapman added, "the connection is immediate and very strong and deep "¦ and it comes from our love for the Sri Lankan people and the hardships we were going through."

Jonathan Spiegel of Massachusetts worked in Sri Lanka in health care and agriculture and noted, "All of us have this common bond, this camaraderie. It's like a family, but without the family squabbles. We felt we were contributing something real and significant."

Spiegel has worked the past four decades in "organizational change and human environments" and approaches it from his roots in the Peace Corps.

Now with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Libby Howze said she joined the Peace Corps because she was a teacher of social studies and geography and realized she didn't know anything about the world except what she'd read in books.

"And I thought maybe I could do some good," she said.

Sri Lankan women were amazed that Howze, though her husband was with her, did not have children — and they wanted to know "this miracle" of being able to control family size and space apart children.

"I set up a system for distributing contraceptives," Howze said. "The Peace Corps set my whole life on a different course — a career in health education."

The big influences at the time were JFK and the Vietnam War, with most of the men threatened with being drafted to fight, Howze said.

"It was really a wonderful adventure and Kennedy was a wonderful impetus. It was very powerful," she said. "America hasn't been challenged that way since."

There was no anti-American climate back then and the volunteers weren't coming in with any political, religious or cultural agenda, psychotherapist Dennis Guttsman said.

"You were really a cultural ambassador more than anything," Guttsman said. "You were a novelty, too. They'd never seen a white person. The kids would come up and touch your skin and giggle."

Pediatrician Dee Robertson of White Salmon, Wash., was sent as part of the "green revolution" to teach Sri Lankans to grow higher-yield rice, but it had a problem — it didn't taste as good.

Joyce Stanley joked, "Here was a 2,500-year-old culture and of rice growers and they really didn't need advice from a Midwest girl who made rice from a box "¦ It was called miracle rice, but it took twice the fertilizer and insecticides. We wanted three harvests, not two. It was a huge mistake of foreign aid, like many over the years."

She added, "There was an equality. We had as much to learn as we had to teach. The Peace Corps changed a lot of foreign policy, as a lot of Peace Corps volunteers got into higher positions and Congress."

"You'd be proud of these people if you could have seen them in action over there," said their in-country director, Stan Reynolds of Oberlin, Ohio. "They cared. They were there for adventure and they cared."

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