First group of Peace Corps volunteers reflect on 50 years

A.M. Costa Rica/Kayla Pearson
Peace Corps alumni Victor Corbin, Chuck Tadlock, Betty Gilmore, Ambassador Anne Andrew, Joy Stoviak de Flores, Ana Zentella, Lynette Chandler and John Helwig

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order to create an organization where men and women of the United States who qualified for service abroad were willing to serve under conditions of hardship to help persons in other countries. He called it, Peace Corps.

Two years later, 26 Peace Corps volunteers, known as Grupo Uno, left for Costa Rica to give two years of their lives to help young Ticos learn about science and English.

“There was a lawyer from Harvard and a poet from Yale, which tells you the caliber of the group,” said Anita Herzeld, professor at the University of Kansas. Ms. Herzfeld came to the country as an educator and a linguist and trained Grupo Uno for service.

“They were people that were really inspired by President Kennedy,” she continued. “They weren’t just finding something to do because they didn’t know what to do. They did it because of a commitment to bring friendship to the world.”

Now 50 years later, seven of the original members of the group returned to where they started in remembrance of the monumental anniversary. Although it was five decades ago, each one vividly remembers their life changing work. Just being the first group here was an experience in itself, some said.

“It was really cool,” said Chuck Tadlock. “Everyone was surprised to see an American here.”

He recounted one of his memorable moments when a farmer approached him and thanked him for all the United States had done for the country.

“He was thanking me personally like I had something to do with the government,” said Tadlock. “It was just amazing.”

For Tadlock, his journey began as a child interested in the rest of the world. Determined to get a job with the State Department, he enrolled in a Spanish class.

“That changed my life right there,” he said. Later, Tadlock decided the State Department wasn’t for him and learned about the Peace Corps.

“It was what I wanted,” he said “People to people, living in another country doing something immediate.”

Tadlock arrived on a Sunday afternoon with two trucks, one full of American literature from the Peace Corps, and a suitcase.

For service, he taught science at Liceo Unesco in San Isidro de El General, the only high school there at the time.

The time in Costa Rica awakened Tadlock’s passion for teaching, and he left to become an educator, a career from which he has retired. Others told of different experiences.

For poet and culturist Betty Gilmore, joining the Peace Corps was a way to travel and see the world.

She served her term as a teacher in Turrialba, living a life she described as very different from the tourist attraction it is now.

Looking back, she remembers the work she did and how much it affected her.

“I remember how much I liked Costa Rica,” she said. “I also remember how much the persons I was teaching taught me.”

After her service, Ms. Gilmore recruited for the Peace Corps and started a rock band. She now uses her arts to connect with immigrants in Italy, working to get them rights.

“It’s kind of a fight,” she explained.

Ms. Gilmore still writes poetry combining them with songs and has been working for the last year on a poem about Turrialba using memories such as eating rice and beans everyday at noon as the framework, she said.

Although each person of Grupo Uno found a different path to follow after their time was over, they all celebrated the organization at the U.S. ambassador’s residence Wednesday.

Ambassador Anne Andrew, Costa Rica’s vice president, Luis Liberman Ginsburg, and current volunteers joined them in the festivities with laughter and the sharing of experiences.

Ms. Andrew addressed this in her speech saying the Peace Corps embodies the open heart and spirit of service.

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