BOSTON -- For most people, the Peace Corps evokes images of idealistic, youthful Americans aiding the poor in distant lands. In a twist, a former Peace Corps volunteer has started a program for foreigners to work at soup kitchens and homeless shelters in the United States's inner cities.
The first two Peace Corps-in-reverse volunteers arrived in Boston this summer from Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Ghana was the first country to receive U.S. volunteers; Czechoslovakia is one of the latest.
The two volunteers already have worked in soup kitchens and an inner city day camp, planted gardens at a homeless shelter and aided the elderly. Both said the poverty they encountered surprised them.
"I knew there possibly would be some problems, but not to this extent," said Charles Hutchinson, 29, a biology teacher who as a teenager was taught by Peace Corps volunteers in southern Ghana.
More than 130,000 volunteers and staff have served in the Peace Corps in 95 countries since John F. Kennedy founded the overseas development agency in March 1961 in his first major initiative as president.
Hutchinson and Ester Boszormenyiova, 24, of Czechoslovakia, spoke outside the John F. Kennedy Library about the two-month pilot program, financed by $6,000 in private donations.
"I think everybody who comes to the United States, they think this is a very rich country . . . a kind of Hollywood life," Boszormenyiova said.
Boszormenyiova said she has few illusions about the darker side of capitalism. She was particularly disturbed by the problems of U.S. youth.
Hutchinson said learning about urban poverty here will serve him well when he goes home. "Many of our countries in Africa are going through very fast development in terms of urbanization," he said.
Tracy Mathieu, a former Peace Corps volunteer, started the program and hopes to extend it next year so that 100 volunteers can come to the United States for the summer.
"We're getting a lot of interest in it," said Mathieu, who once supervised a water sanitation project in West Africa.
Supporters include Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), economist John Kenneth Galbraith and the president of Citizens Energy Corp., Michael Kennedy, a nephew of the late president Kennedy.
A reverse Peace Corps project was first proposed in 1961 by former Ghanaian prime minister Kwame Nkrumah.
For two years, between 1966 and 1968, overseas Peace Corps volunteers came to the United States and worked in VISTA, the Volunteers in Service to America progam for improving the living conditions of impoverished Americans.
But the program was never approved by Congress, Mathieu said.
Both of this year's volunteers, who plan to attend school in the United States when the program ends, said they are inspired by Kennedy's call to U.S. youth: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Boszormenyiova said Kennedy's words hold significance for Czechoslovak youth who want to foster democracy in the midst of Eastern Europe's political upheavals.
"It was something I really started thinking about," she said. "I feel that I must give something to my country. I'm proud of Czechoslovakia, as John Kennedy was proud of America. People in Czechoslovakia are waking up."