The story behind Women of Peace Corps Legacy’s start

Thursday June 8, 2023

by Kelsey McMahon

 

It turns out that a bit of magic occurs when you put three returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) in a room together. Lee Lacy (Samoa 1971-1973) and Jody Olsen (Tunisia 1966-1968) were excited to visit their good friend, Betsi Shays (Fiji 1968-1970) at her home by the Chesapeake Bay for a relaxing weekend. No one expected that the long walks together or the discussions over seafood would culminate in the birth of a women’s empowerment nonprofit.

“I had been reading Scott’ Stossel’s Sarge, and Come As You Are by Redmon Coates. I was intrigued why there wasn’t more about the women who were there in the early years [like] Nancy Gore, Sally Bowles, and Betty Harris. The three of us started talking about the impact the Peace Corps made on our lives and the international possibilities it gave us.” Lee said before adding, “I can remember saying at one point, some of the most interesting women I’ve ever met had some affiliation with the Peace Corps and wouldn’t it be great to get them all in the same room?”

Jody and Betsi were quick to agree and suggested getting other Peace Corps connections involved. Jody suggested Laverne Webb, a former Peace Corps staff member, who conveniently lived in the area.

When asked about her first memories of the organization, Laverne stated, “I remember Lee insisted that we have young women at the table from the very beginning – that set the stage for what Women of Peace Corps Legacy became.”

“The engagement of younger RPCVs was an opportunity for us to stay current and see the Peace Corps experience through different generational eyes,” added Kate Raftery (Paraguay 1973-1977).

Lee knew just the RPCV to call. Syd Merz, who had just completed her second Peace Corps service (Armenia 2006-08; Philippines 2008-2010), was pleasantly surprised to have her former Country Director from Armenia ask her to join the organization.

 

“Lee said she would appreciate my voice to be part of the development. I researched the founding committee members and thought I don’t know if I should be at the table with these amazing women,” confessed Syd.

Syd pushed her initial doubts to the side and asked how she could help, eager to be part of something new in Peace Corps’ history. She joined Betsi Shays, Jody Olsen, Lee Lacy, Laverne Webb, and Bettie Currie as they gathered to share their unique Peace Corps experiences. With each story told, the women became more excited; they sensed they were developing something truly amazing.

“That was such a beautiful gathering. We began to see the value of bringing generations of women together to hear each other’s stories, and to mentor, support, and recognize the women leaders making a difference,” stated Laverne.

The women decided to capture and celebrate some of the first women in Peace Corps’ history in a documentary film.  But like true RPCVs, they found themselves asking, how do we make our efforts sustainable?

“Clarifying our purpose was very important. We talked about the systems that would connect the pieces, who we needed to talk to, what information we needed to gather. For me, the joy was seeing how the structured framework could jumpstart everyone’s creative thinking,” Betsi said.

Maryann Minutillo, a long-time Peace Corps staff member and early WPCL supporter added, “This organization could harness the interest, competence, and creativity of women who have or still are, part of what the Peace Corps represents. We could continue to make a difference.”

How Women of Peace Corps Legacy got its name

With the organization’s mission identified and a roster of women willing to support, the organization now needed a name. At first, the women considered Women of the Peace Corps. Lee, who was working at the Peace Corps headquarters as Deputy Director of the Center, suggested running the name by the agency’s legal team.

“I had a conversation with Lien Galloway, and she said that [legally], the Peace Corps had to be a modifier. I explained that we wanted to honor the women who have contributed so much both to the Peace Corps and in the lives of other women. Lien suggested Women of Peace Corps Legacy (WPCL), and that’s how we got the name,” Lee explained with a smile.

The nonprofit would not be here today without the financial guidance from Justine Desmarais, (El Salvador 1995-1997) who, serving as the nonprofit’s first treasurer, completed the various IRS forms and filings required.

Jody served as WPCL’s president for the first five years and with Laverne’s assistance, developed the first award to recognize and support women empowerment: The Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award. On March 30, 2018, Jody was named the Peace Corps Director, requiring her to leave WPCL. She asked Kathleen Corey (Liberia 1975-1979) to step in.

“I had such admiration for Jody that I don’t think I could have said no. When I learned about WPCL’s mission, I thought I am going to enjoy being part of this! I interviewed every person on the advisory council to learn what was working and what needed to be improved. One thing I heard repeatedly was bringing in and inspiring younger women. That was when we created our Facebook page and website,” Corey said.

During Corey’s leadership, WPCL continued its successful mentor program, connecting women who were still navigating their careers with seasoned RPCVs and Peace Corps leaders.

“I’m quite proud of the mentoring program that we’ve established. I value our work and it’s one reason I can never see myself leaving WPCL,” beamed Corey.

The team also had the distinct opportunity to present The Deborah Harding Lifetime Achievement Award at National Peace Corps Association’s annual conference.

“We were getting nominations for the Deborah Harding Award for significantly younger women that were not as competitive, because they simply had not been on this earth as long. All of us were enthusiastic about recognizing those young women [through another award],” explained Kate.

And thus, the Kate Raftery Emerging Leader Award was created.

“I had nothing to do with it being named after me and at first, I felt unworthy and humbled. It gave me great pride to know that I was in fact a good partner and mentor to younger women over the course of my career. I was pleased to own that label of “youth lover,” said Kate.

 

The future of Women of Peace Corps legacy

As the organization rings in its tenth anniversary, the founders and current committee members continue to find opportunities to grow. From the organization’s reach to its list of programs and offerings, the women say this is just the beginning.

In fact, just this past year, WPCL launched its Extra-Ordinary Women Podcast, which is available on Spotify and Apple. The nonprofit also grew its online presence by developing a WPCL LinkedIn profile to promote upcoming events and recruit new members.

“I’d like to see us host a conference in which we invite every woman who has either served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, former and current counterparts, graduates of G.L.O.W camps – I think that would be powerful,” offered Lee.

“I hope we can [establish] WPCL cohorts around the U.S. – that would be an opportunity for individuals to get together in person and develop relationships,” suggested Lynn Kneedler (Tanzania 1965-1967). “Virtual meetings will remain important for us to build connections and strengthen the diversity of our team.”

Betsi, on the other hand, would like to expand WPCL’s successful mentor program, stating, “Down the road I would love to see WPCL mentor individuals going into Peace Corps service.”

Corey would like to see WPCL name recognition and podcast subscribers grow, adding, “I would be excited if WPCL was recognized far and wide among organizations who support women and girls globally. Also, if we can inspire Extra-Ordinary Women podcast listeners to join the organizations of the women featured in each episode, then we’re doing great work.”

Have great ideas for WPCL’s future? Want to join our advisory board or a committee? Email us at [email protected].

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