updated 3/29/2004 8:37:33 AM ET 2004-03-29T13:37:33

The Peace Corps is trying to carry out President Bush’s goal of doubling the number of volunteers it sends abroad by 2007, but it lacks the money to do it.

“The rate of growth for the Peace Corps has slowed and will slow because the funding levels we requested for doubling have not materialized,” Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez says.

More than 7,500 volunteers served in 71 countries last year, the most since the early 1970s. The Peace Corps budget, which grew by $26 million to $323 million this year, remains short of that needed to set the agency on track to reach 14,000 volunteers within the five-year period Bush proposed in his 2002 State of the Union address.

9/11 awareness
After Bush’s speech, interest in joining the Peace Corps grew rapidly in post-Sept. 11 America. Applications climbed from 9,156 in 2001 to 11,518 last year, and officials foresee another banner year of applications in 2004.

One new volunteer is Eric Willson of St. Albans, W.Va., beginning work next month in East Timor on a medical project. He attributed new interest in serving abroad to a change in how some Americans see themselves after the 2001 terror attacks.

“It’s a lot of the awakening of Americans, that we are the richest society in the world and it’s about time we start giving back some,” said Willson, 27.

The demand for Peace Corps programs also has reached unprecedented levels. The agency began projects last year in Fiji, Albania, Chad and Azerbaijan and has a waiting list of 20 nations seeking new projects, said Jennifer Borgen, a Peace Corps spokeswoman.

Rising interest from prospective volunteers and foreign countries makes this a crucial time for the agency, said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., a former Peace Corps volunteer.

“The interest to get into the Peace Corps is at an all-time high. The only thing that’s not able to match the supply with the demand has been the funding,” said Farr, who has sponsored legislation that would rapidly double the agency’s budget.

Budget proposals
Farr criticized the administration for not doing more to increase the Peace Corps’ 2004 allocation. Bush requested $359 million, but Congress provided $36 million less.

The president’s 2005 budget returns to the agency’s original blueprint for doubling by 2007, requesting $401 million for next year. The outline calls for $443 million in 2006 and $485 million in 2007, said Michelle Brooks, Peace Corps deputy director of congressional relations.

Brooks said those sums would set the Peace Corps on track to reach 14,000 volunteers, but not by 2007 because of previous setbacks.

The Peace Corps pays volunteers a stipend based on the living standards of their host countries during their two years of service. They are paid a little more than $6,000 after completing their tours.

More than 170,000 volunteers have served in 136 countries since President Kennedy founded the organization in 1961. The Peace Corps reached 15,000 volunteers in 1966 and maintained 4,500 to 7,100 volunteers annually over the past 30 years.

Safety issues since 9/11
Vasquez said safety of the volunteers and availability of worthwhile assignments are priorities for the organization as it seeks to expand.

Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Peace Corps established an office of safety and security to oversee safety regulations, increased its safety and security staff and added an extra day of safety training for departing volunteers.

“We don’t want volunteers to be surprised when they get in-country,” spokeswoman Barbara Daly said. “It would have been irresponsible of us if that hadn’t changed.”

Daly said the agency works with its regional directors and host-country officials to find programs for new assignments abroad. Its largest project is in Ukraine, with 314 volunteers.

Host countries are requesting more volunteers in information technology, small business, agriculture and youth development, Daly said.

The Peace Corps recently began recruitment campaigns geared toward minorities, older Americans and community college students to find people who had not thought of volunteering but have relevant work experience and skills.

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