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Hearing Sargent Shriver sent her to Africa, changed her life

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Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2011 12:27 pm

(Ann Sheehan is executive director of BCTV, a Reading resident, and a Peace Corp volunteer who served in Togo. The Peace Corp's first director, Sargent Shriver, died Tuesday, Jan. 18.)

In 1964, I was a junior at Fordham University's downtown building (this was several years before the Lincoln Center campus was built), and found out that Sargent Shriver was going to speak the next day at Fordham's Bronx campus.

I persuaded one of my girlfriends to make the long trip, by subway and el, up to the Bronx, and listened to Sarge talk about President Kennedy, his "ask not what your country" idea, and the Peace Corps.

The idea of the Peace Corps had intrigued me since it was first talked about, and although I don't remember anything specific that he said, Sarge hooked me completely.

There were applications available right there, in the gym, and I made my friend wait for me while I filled it out, never dreaming that I would be accepted.

I went home that night and told my parents I had applied for the Peace Corps — their reaction was something like, "that's nice, dear."

A couple of months later a letter arrived, signed by R. Sargent Shriver himself, saying that I had been accepted!

Not only had I been accepted, I was going to be part of an experimental group — kids from all across the country who, after finishing junior year in college, would go to Dartmouth College for the summer for the first stage of training for the Peace Corps' English, Math and Science teacher program for French-speaking West Africa!

It didn't matter to me a bit that I had put in my application that I wanted to go to Southeast Asia — I was in, that's what mattered!

I went to Togo for two years and taught English as a second language.

It was a life-changing experience, which is a statement made by just about everyone who's been in the Peace Corps.

In September 2001, the Peace Corps celebrated its 40th anniversary. The actual celebration took place a few weeks after Sept. 11, and it was one of the most moving events I've participated in.

There were RPCVs who had served all over the world, including in Afghanistan, and while everyone was still mourning the loss of all those lives on 9/11, it was exhilarating to listen to Sarge talk and exhort us all, once again, to "Serve! Serve! Serve!"

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