Four days into her retirement, Margaret Reinhardt is packing for her Peace Corps trip to Azerbaijan. She was in college at the inception of the Peace Corps and now, fifty years later, will volunteer to teach English to high school students.
“My generation believed we could make things happen,” said Reinhardt, a recent retiree from General Mills who will spend her next 27 months in another country. “Today the Peace Corps is focusing on recruiting retirees, where years ago it was almost all young people.”
Azerbaijan is a tough country to serve, with very defined roles for women and a great distrust for the United States. Most people in the country are secular Muslims with 50 percent stating that they are non-religious. “They think that volunteers could be spies,” said Reinhardt. “The country has a Russian influence, and was a part of the Soviet Union until 1991. There is still a cease-fire line from ’94. It borders with Iran.”
Each country served by the Peace Corps has made a request for American help in areas of education, youth/community development, healthcare and HIV/AIDS, business and information and communication technology, agriculture, or environment. Education is the largest request, making up 33 percent of all requests.
The Peace Corps will celebrate 50 years of service in 2011. As a senator, John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. When he became president, his administration founded the Peace Corps, a federal government agency devoted to world peace and friendship.
According to Marianne Midwinter, a regional recruiter from Chicago, six thousand Minnesotans have served in the Peace Corps since 1961.
“In the 60s and 70s,” said Reinhardt, “there were 30,000 volunteers and today there are 8,000. The Peace Corps has served 136 countries, but after 9/11 we pulled out of countries. Today we are serving 75 countries. In general, most countries want help with technology, education and learning English.”
Before retirement, Reinhardt worked at General Mills. “The company had a emphasis on volunteering and community service,” she said. “Plus, I grew up on a farm in a large family of six brothers and sisters. We believed we could do anything or that we had to do everything. I cry every time I hear the 4-H song, ‘This is My Song.’ I believe it is the United Nation’s peace song.”
While in the Peace Corps, volunteers can create a secondary project of their own. “I will do a library,” said Reinhardt. “Informed citizens can make better decisions for their communities. I’m hoping they will be learning the difference between fact and fiction.”
“There is so much to do here locally, should I be leaving at this time?” questioned Reinhardt. She will leave for Azerbaijan September 23 with a group of volunteers ready to work in education, youth/community development and business development.