Kevin Quigley is searching for 100,000 people.
As president of the National Peace Corps Association, it’s Quigley’s job to unite former and current Peace Corps members. But of the more than 200,000 who have served since the agency’s inception in 1961, only half are registered with the Peace Corps. Quigley is leading the effort to find “the lost 100,000.”
The Peace Corps and the association have an agreement to share information about alumni, but it’s the government agency that misplaced the records.
How did that happen? A number of explanations have been given, ranging from the records’ destruction in a fire to the failure to keep them in the first place because President Nixon hoped to disband the agency. Quigley admits these may just be stories told through the years. He speculates that the Peace Corps was simply sloppy in its early years—no new initiative begins with an eye on preserving its past.
“It was a new organization growing like weeds, and they weren’t really thinking about systems and capturing all this data for posterity,” Quigley, 58, explains. Now it has fallen to the association’s staff of eight to fill in the gaps.
But why spend manpower and time tracking down old volunteers? In a place like Washington, the answer usually involves a form of power, and Quigley doesn’t hide from this truth. It’s simple—more members translates into a stronger voice on Capitol Hill.
“It amplifies our voice,” Quigley says. “It’s helpful when I’m asked to testify in Congress or asked to represent the National Peace Corps Association in front of various groups. If I can say, ‘Hey, there are 200,000 of us who have been Peace Corps volunteers and I’m connected to 85 percent of them,’ that’s pretty powerful. I’m speaking for these 175,000 people because I’ve checked with them, I’ve talked with them, I’ve surveyed them.”
Although funding is part of the association’s focus, it also works on the Peace Corps Commemorative, a proposal to develop an urban garden on the National Mall where the Peace Corps would be recognized. The association wants Congress to authorize the memorial to honor the agency’s values and celebrate its founding.
Global citizens, broadened worldviews, insightful Americans—these are all terms Quigley uses to describe Peace Corps volunteers. He would know. Not only has Quigley worked at the association for eight years, he is a part of the community. He was in Thailand from 1976 to 1979, staying a year longer than the required 27 months.
“It made me at home in the world,” he says. “Because of intensive integration into another community, it helps us develop empathy and some flexibility, and that changed the course of my life.”
Quigley saw refugees flee Cambodia in the late 1970s; it is these kinds of experiences, he says, that form a different worldview for Peace Corps volunteers.
“We’ve lived and worked in communities where the [AIDS/HIV] pandemic has rates of 50 percent and above, and that’s just an insight that many Americans don’t have,” he says. “We understand the importance of food security or the importance of educating girls in Muslim societies. So we find we are often asked or want to advocate on big global issues.”
It’s this understanding of the world that propels Peace Corps alumni to attempt to influence legislation. But the task of gaining influence through numbers isn’t easily accomplished.
Of the 100,000 missing names, the association only has e-mails for half of those. No interns have been recruited or extra hands hired to track down the remainder; instead the staff is slowly but surely gathering names of the lost ones through electronic smoke signals and a worldwide game of telephone.
“It’s going to take the whole community to succeed,” Quigley says. And the whole community is pitching in. The association has about 140 member groups that are broken down by either the country where members served or their current location. The groups are a starting point for Quigley’s staff to find members who have yet to register. Some of these groups spent 2011 tracking down names; they found 6,000 to 7,000 within the year.
Those numbers are encouraging to Quigley, but he still has a lofty goal to reach. The association may not know the names of half the agency’s past volunteers, but it’s evident that the Peace Corps has a way of uniting people. Quigley believes that 1.3 million people in more than 80 countries celebrated the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary in 2011.
“Our community loves to get together and share stories,” he says. “When they find other [Peace Corps] people, there’s this affinity because we share some common experiences and some worldview regardless of when or where you served or what you did.”
This article appears in the Jan. 31, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.