Life is about choices. I could not be prouder of my decision to serve in the Peace Corps with my wife, Patti, in Ethiopia. The experience imbued us with the courage to choose a life of public service: to dedicate ourselves to developing policies that create social and economic justice and lift people out of poverty.
In 1966, at the start of our Peace Corps journey, we found a new home in rural Ethiopia: a tin roof, dirt floor, wattle walls, and unlimited opportunity to serve. Teaching seventh and eighth grade and women’s family health education, digging wells, offering small pox vaccinations, building remote schools, setting up coffee co-ops – every day was filled with helping the community.
The work inspired confidence in the ability of our common humanity to overcome daunting challenges. We witnessed remarkable cooperation and an intense desire to build a thriving community.
The partnerships we forged through our Peace Corps experiences have borne fruit up to this very day. For example, small pox was once a scourge upon our earth that disfigured, blinded, and killed millions. In administering vaccinations, we played a part in a global campaign that led to the eradication of this disease.
In the 1980s, I returned to an Ethiopia that was suffering from mass famine and drought due to civil war. Using my knowledge of water issues, I worked with a local public servant to provide water to a large camp of people displaced from the fighting.
In the late 1990s, during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, I led a peace delegation of returned Peace Corps Volunteers to negotiate between the warring states. Because both heads of state had been taught by Peace Corps Volunteers, they were willing to talk with us, and we were able to help negotiate a peace treaty.
My Peace Corps experience has guided me throughout my career. For instance, having seen the transformative benefits of expanding health access to rural areas of Ethiopia, I authored a law in the California legislature that made it easier for families in remote areas of California to see a doctor.
These Peace Corps stories are replicated over and over again by Volunteers of the past, present, and future. Peace Corps Volunteers return to America as tried and tested leaders. They are ready to take on a world of challenges in this country and continue a life of service.
Congressman John Garamendi served in Ethiopia from 1966-68 and currently represents the 10th Congressional District in California.