American Peace Corps in Poland

The American Peace Corps is a federal government agency, which owes its origin to an event which occurred during Senator John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. At an impromptu meeting at the University of Michigan, Kennedy confronted the students, asking how many of them would be prepared to spare some time to help developing countries. One thousand students responded positively. Support for the concept grew and, with the new President’s backing, the US Congress passed the Peace Corps Act on 22 September 1961.

The Corps was entrusted with a mission to “promote world peace and friendship”. The organisation’s mission remains unchanged to this day. It sends out volunteers to interested countries, to help with their social and economic development. Initially, the Peace Corps was mainly active in the countries of the so-called Third World.

At the beginning of the transformation period which followed the fall of Communism, the Peace Corps responded to the invitation of the governments of Central and Eastern Europe and during the period 1990-2001, some 1000 volunteers were deployed in Poland. They came here in fifteen groups of between 28 – 132 young people and their mission fell into three main categories: English language teaching, the promotion of small businesses and environmental protection.

The volunteers worked within a framework of two-year contracts in various institutions, non-governmental organisations, town councils, national parks, museums, schools and in newly established language teacher training colleges – mostly in smaller towns. In order to be assigned a volunteer, these institutions had to make an application, justifying their requirement for such aid and giving an assurance that the volunteer would be provided with housing and – in the case of individual language teachers – that they would be paid a salary in line with other employees.

Thanks to the facilities which the Corps offered, and also to their own skills, the volunteers succeeded in carrying out some 160 projects with a total value of about $900,000. Most projects were concerned with equipping institutions with professional English-language literature and with computers, as well as installation of Internet services. Volunteers were expected to work on behalf of local communities and to meet their needs.

By June 2001 as many as 670 volunteers had been involved in the field of English language teaching, to the benefit of 120,000 pupils of secondary schools and more than 9,000 students of English language training colleges. Thanks to the activities of the Peace Corps, the number of full-time teachers in the colleges rose from 1,700 in 1989 to over 12,000 by 2001.

On the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the American Peace Corps and on the 10th anniversary of the completion of its mission in Poland, the KARTA Centre has undertaken to commemorate the work of these volunteers in our country. The inspiration and support for this project has come from the Embassy of the United States of America in Warsaw. We have managed not only to reconstruct the Polish history of the Corps’ activities, to establish the names of all the volunteers, the places to which they were posted and the fields in which they worked but also to make contact with over 500 people who had links with the Corps.

The documentation we have amassed now constitutes a considerable collection in the archives of the KARTA Centre, and we are pleased to present a selection of this material. To this end, we have chosen to publish not just this multi-media presentation, but also features in the ‘Karta’ quarterly magazine and a brochure (which you can download above) – all of which we hope will familiarise people with this largely forgotten episode in the process of transformation which took place in Poland after the fall of the Communist system.

Copyright by the KARTA Center