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Peace Corps Celebrates 40th Anniversary

"The Peace Corps represents the highest purpose of this country, " says Sargent Shriver, founding director of the Peace Corps. "It personifies our best qualities and deploys to the world the vision of what the United States stands for."

Forty years after President Kennedy created the Peace Corps, the organization has sent over 162,000 volunteers to 134 countries to provide educational, environmental, health, business, and agricultural services and training.

An early group of Peace Corps volunteers go through training before being sent to a foreign country.

Photograph courtesy of U.S. Peace Corps

View the U.S. Peace Corps photo gallery >>

Kennedy's Dream

The first mention of the Peace Corps came in 1960, when John F. Kennedy stumped at the University of Michigan.

"How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana," Kennedy asked at an impromptu 2 a.m. speech.

The idea blossomed, and days before the 1960 election, Kennedy declared that if elected president, he would create an international service organization called the "Peace Corps."

"There is not enough money in all America to relieve the misery of the undeveloped world," he explained. "But there is enough know-how and enough knowledgeable people to help those nations help themselves."

After being elected, Kennedy reiterated this idea in his State of Union address and on March 1, 1961, he signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps.

"The Peace Corps was Kennedy's dream," says Shriver. "It was one of the most visionary and important dreams he ever expressed."

The Peace Corps has grown not just in number, but also in respect around the globe.

The Peace Corps in the 21st Century

A world vastly changed since 1961 has brought a new series of challenges to Peace Corps volunteers.

Once only serving Africa, Peace Corps volunteers now travel around the globe—most recently to Eastern Europe. In 1990 President George Bush sent Peace Corps volunteers to Hungary and Poland, areas in need of assistance but unreachable during the Cold War.

The '90s saw AIDS become an increasing threat both at home and abroad. Last year Peace Corps director Mark Schneider announced that all 2,400 Peace Corps volunteers serving 25 countries in Africa would be trained as HIV/AIDS educators. Two hundred volunteers were deployed to work exclusively on AIDS-related assignments.

Another challenge of the 1990s was globalizing technology. In October the Peace Corps teamed up with AOL-Time Warner and Hewlett-Packard. The companies donated "Peace Packs" of computers, modems, printers, and digital cameras to 15 countries, as well as 120 volunteers trained in information technology.

Says Shriver, "the Peace Corps has a greater mission today than it did when it started: to bring peace to every corner of the world."

U.S. residents can watch the complete interview with Sargent Shriver on the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps at 7 and 10 p.m. on National Geographic Today .

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Famous Volunteers

Taylor Hackford, movie producer of "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "The Devil's Advocate": Bolivia 1968-69

Bob Vila, former host of award-winning show, "This Old House": Panama 1969-70

Paul Theroux, author of Mosquito Coast and Kowloon Tong: The Last Days of Hong Kong: Malawi 1963-65

Edward Dolby, president Bank of America, Carolinas: India 1966-68

Robert Haas, president of Levi Strauss: Ivory Coast 1964-66

Michael B. McCaskey, chairman of the board, Chicago Bears: Ethiopia 1965-67

Priscilla Wrubel, founder of The Nature Company: Liberia 1961-63

Ron Arias, senior correspondent for People magazine: Peru 1963-64

Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF: Guatemala 1963-1965

Elaine Jones, director of NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund: Turkey 1965-67

Carl Pope, executive director of Sierra Club: India 1967-69

Thomas Murphy Jr., mayor of Pittsburgh: Paraguay 1970-72

Donna E. Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services: Iran 1962-64