In September 1961, Mary Ellen Craig, a recent graduate of Purdue University's School of Home Economics, was about to set off on one of the most memorable experiences of her life.
She and 44 other new Peace Corps volunteers, most of them recruited from Indiana colleges, were about to set sail from New York City on the Grace Line ship, the Santi Isabel. Their destination was the central valley of Chile, where the 29 men and 16 women would spend the next two years working in the countryside with the Instituto de Educacion Rural.
They were the first volunteers trained and sent into the field after President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order formally establishing the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961.
"That was before the Peace Corps was the Peace Corps. ... We had no model for what we were going to do," said Craig, a longtime Reston resident, who will be joining other area Peace Corps volunteers at a special celebration of the Corps' 50th anniversary April 8 at Reston's Nature House.
Special guest will be Peace Corps director Aaron Williams, also a longtime Reston resident, who volunteered in the Dominican Republic for the corps from 1967 to 1970, starting when he was 20. Williams said in an email he will speak about how the Corps "represents an American legacy of public service."
"Peace Corps volunteers provide sustainable solutions by sharing America's most precious resource - its people," he wrote.
For Craig, her experience as one of the Peace Corps' first group of volunteers remains not only vivid but also seminal, even 50 years later.
"The Peace Corps set me on my life path. ... I found who I was down there. ... It was the two most remembered years of my life," said Craig, who trained institute students or "delegados" (delegated ones) in healthy food preparation and sanitation and did all the marketing for student meals.
Her time in Chile came about a year after the nation suffered a devastating earthquake, and Craig and her fellow volunteers focused on teaching skills to community leaders that would allow the region's "campesinos" to stay on the farms rather than move to city slums.
As Peace Corps pioneers, Craig and her group came in contact with a number of its legendary founders. During training at Notre Dame, she became acquainted with a friend of Kennedy's, The Rev. Theodore Martin Hesburgh, who was Notre Dame's president from 1952 to 1987. Hesburgh served as an important mentor to the program's first volunteers. Sargent Shriver, who was the Corps' director until February 1966, was a frequent "drop-in guest" while she was in Chile.
Among Craig's most prized possessions are several framed letters from President Kennedy. One written April 3, 1962, at the behest of Hesburgh and hand-delivered by him to each volunteer on their first Easter in Chile, reads: "Dear Professor Craig, I have heard fine things about the Peace Corps in Chile. Keep up the good work. Success in your work for the Chilean people will bring credit to you and to our country. Happy Easter! Sincerely, John Kennedy."
Craig, 72, later went on to become dean of women at Ohio's Dennison University and after that returned to the Peace Corps working in the Division of Volunteer Support Services.
Like Craig and Williams, former Peace Corps volunteer Steve Clapp considers his time in Yola, Nigeria, from 1963 to 1964 as "the defining experience of my life."
In addition to his work experience, Clapp said he met his first wife, the mother of his two daughters, during his Peace Corps training at Columbia University. He and his three fellow volunteers in Nigeria remain close friends.
Clapp said among his Peace Corps legacies was a fresh perspective on his own country.
Now a journalist specializing in food policy, Clapp, 72, a former Reston resident who lives in Culpeper, said his overseas experience was different.
As an English teacher at a secondary boarding school, Clapp lived in "very nice housing" and was even a member of the local social and tennis club.
Clapp noted that one of his students went on to become the vice president of Nigeria and founded an American-style private university, called the American University of Nigeria, in Yola.
While he was in Nigeria, President Kennedy was assassinated, and people from the remotest villages came to offer their condolences, he said.
Clapp has written a memoir of his experiences, "Africa Remembered," which is available on Amazon.
Longtime Reston residents Lynn and Phil Lilienthal served as married volunteers, from September 1965 to August 1967, in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
Their oldest son was born there in February 1967. And their youngest son was born in the Philippines, where Phil Liliethnal served as the Peace Corps regional director for Mindanao. The couple also lived for a year in Thailand, where Phil worked as a Peace Corps deputy director.
As a volunteer, Phil Lilienthal, now 70, worked as part of a legal team put together by an American adviser to Emperor Haile Selassie, who would be in power for another nine years. One of his first jobs was working with the Ministry of the Interior to set up a "New Town," similar to Reston.
Lynn Lilienthal did social work at a mental hospital, taught English at a home for juvenile delinquents and worked at a home, supported by two of Selassie's granddaughters, for poor handicapped children.
Phil Lilienthal also helped create Ethiopia's first sleepaway summer camp at Lake Langano, one of the three lakes in the Ethiopian part of the Rift Valley. The camp primarily served inner city boys from Addis Ababa.
Forty years later -- inspired in part by that earlier experience and the prestigious camp in Maine owned by his family -- he founded Global Camps Africa, which has been helping children with HIV/AIDS at its nonprofit Camp Sizanani in South Africa since 2004.
"It was quite an experience," said Lynn Lilienthal.
A recent Peace Corps volunteer, Katie Morris, 30, who grew up in Reston, spent 2007 through 2009 serving in the Albanian town of Erseka near Greece. Working in the local government office, she wrote grants and project proposals, including one for building a basketball court in the town. "That was a big deal for us," she said.
"There are a lot of problems in the world, not a lot of stability. I felt I could share my experience and somehow help," said Morris, a Penn State graduate and anthropology major, who studied urban policy at Georgia State University's graduate school and worked for two years at U.S. Airways in inventory management.
Morris's major takeaway was the relationships she developed, especially with her two host families. "I feel incredibly close to them. They will always be my second families," she said.
For people thinking of joining the Peace Corps, she advised, "two years is long time, but it forces you to get outside your comfort zone."
If You Go
What: Celebrate 50 Years of the Peace Corps
When: 6 to 8:30 p.m. April 8
Where: Nature House, Walker Nature Center, 11450 Glade Drive, Reston
Cost: Admission is $25. RSVP early as space is limited. Make checks out to Lynn Lilienthal, treasurer. To receive a confirmation, include your email address on the check. Mail to Nancy Seifer, P.O. Box 2185, Reston, VA 20195.
FYI: For information, contact Katie Morris at katie.morris81