UI salutes Peace Corps


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Patricia Gillette celebrated her 59th birthday on Monday in a unique way — by presenting her experience working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya at the Iowa City Public Library.

“When they told me I was going to present on [Monday], I thought, what a great opportunity to celebrate my life by celebrating some of the great journeys that I’ve been on and celebrating the people of Kenya,” she said at the library, 123 S. Linn St.

As part of the UI International Mondays lecture series, her presentation kicked off the university’s celebration of national Peace Corps Week.

Gillette set out for her Peace Corps trip to the town of Mariakani, Kenya, in 2006, after retiring from an executive position in a health-care business. There, she established a textile company employing vulnerable women and older orphans.

By the time she left in 2008, Lifeworks Shukrani — which means “thankful to God” in Swahili — employed 42 women and had started exporting to the United States and the Caribbean.

Gillette said working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mariakani was “tremendously satisfying.”“Every person who became employed affected their community by touching seven other people economically. It spreads well across the community,” she said.

She was among roughly 195,000 Americans who have served in 139 countries as Peace Corps volunteers since President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order to establish the organization in 1961.

Applications to the Peace Corps across the nation increased 16 percent last year, the largest boost in the past five years. Nearly 7,900 Peace Corps volunteers are working in 76 countries across the globe.

The UI is also contributing to the humanitarian cause — more than 560 UI alumni have served in the Peace Corps since 1961. Roughly 30 UI students are volunteering in countries including Belize, Botswana, Moldova, Madagascar, Panama, and the Philippines. They work a variety of areas, including education and business development as well as health and HIV/AIDS education.

UI graduate student Becky Johnson quit her job to join the Peace Corps in 2000, working as a community health volunteer in Madagascar. She said she had always wanted to be involved with the Peace Corps.

“It just seems like such a unique way to experience another part of the world. It’s such an intense experience that you can assimilate in a culture and learn the language,” she said. “And I really like that grass-root, long-term approach to working in another culture.”

Taking one step further in her efforts to serve the countries and people in need, Johnson became the UI’s on-campus Peace Corps recruiter in August 2008. Through monthly informational meetings, classroom and community visits, and interviews with potential applicants, she takes every opportunity to promote awareness for the cause.

Experiences of returned Peace Corps volunteers, such as Johnson, help enrich their communities, said Christine Torres, a Peace Corps public-affairs specialist in the Chicago regional office.

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