“Did we make any difference?” We still sometimes ponder this question almost six decades after we joined the then-brand-new Peace Corps.
The question came to the fore with recent conversations following the memorial service of a volunteer from our group.
It prompted almost a laugh from Judy, now a Wisconsin retiree who roomed with me en route to Chile, where we served. “There were only 45 of us,” she said. “We couldn’t change the world.”
True, but we were young, more idealistic than realistic.
Tom, a Chicago-area resident, is more concerned. He worries about the recurring riots in Chile, which broke out last October and flared again with violence in four major cities this month.
“Did we do any good?” he fretted in a phone call.
Volunteers in our group, as with many others, returned after their service to teach language, or enter foreign service or assist in establishing business and schools abroad.
Judy and I, both home economists, helped put together a book of recipes for using what was then CARE donations of cornmeal, dried milk and other foods. Years later, when Judy and her husband worked in Chile for several years, that volume was still in use by the private schools where we had been assigned.
Just last week, I met natives of Paraguay, a couple now working in Christian-Muslim relations who said they learned Arabic using materials of previous Peace Corps volunteers. Now residents of the United States, they spoke a Spanish that was clear even to me with my now almost forgotten skill, as well as excellent English.
Admittedly, over the years most of us have lost contact with the Chileans we knew.
On the other hand, the links within our group have remained strong.
It is, of course, a diminishing group as we age. Our Chicago friend, and a couple others of our group, married Chileans and they, of course, have maintained friendships and contacts there.
Just over a week ago, my husband and I made an almost six-hour round trip to the memorial service for yet another former volunteer. His widow was in our group and we met him, but didn’t get to know him well as he arrived about a year later and worked in another part of Chile.
We learned a great deal from speakers at his memorial service, everything from his cooking fame to his dedication to family and the university students he taught.
Taking notes during a memorial service probably is not appropriate, but I wish I could have. As it is, I do not recall how many miles his sister said it was that someone drove just to get one of his apple pies.
Nor can I relate exactly what the representative for a Delaware state legislator cited in the letter he read praising Wendell for his community service.
I do recall part of the praise by Henry Tisdale, recently retired president of Clafin University in South Carolina. Tisdale recalled requesting that Wendell, a communications professor, set up what became a successful program at Clafin.
Wendell had both a doctorate and a background of teaching at seven colleges and universities, raging from Dartmouth to Delaware State University. (That was in the memorial program; I didn’t need notes.)
More than likely, Weddell would have accomplished all he did with or without his experience in Chile.
We know, however, what he did also was admired there. Among the email condolences that poured in was one from a later volunteer in Chile who never met Wendell.
“This story, told to me by Ramon Rost, a woodcarver at an artisan fair in Santiago, decades after Wendell left Chile,” the former volunteer wrote.
“The Peace Corps!” exclaimed Ramón. “I love the Peace Corps.”
He told me his story, how as a young man in the early 1960s, living in the country on a farm outside of Osorno an hour south of Valdivia, he was sent to a boarding school run by a rural educational institute, IER, in the small town of Remehue.
“There were four Peace Corps volunteers working at this school, and I remember especially Wendell Gorum. He taught us physical education. He was wonderful, he was our friend, he gave us pride and confidence to do things we had never done before, and we learned so much from Wendell and the others,” he said before again exclaiming, “I love the Peace Corps!”
In these weeks of disturbing events worldwide, the good recollections were welcome.