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Peace Corps Feels Economic Pinch, Cuts Positions

This story was written by Regina Zilbermints, The Daily Iowan

University of Iowa alumna Abbie Bys wanted to help people around the world and serve her country peacefully.

But hundreds of people with similar aspirations may find their dreams put on hold as the Peace Corps struggles with impending budget shortfalls and a struggling global economy.

The program has an annual budget of $330.8 million. Officials are preparing for an $18 million shortfall for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, caused by rising food and fuel costs and the devaluation of the dollar overseas. More than $9 million was lost in the currency exchange alone.

"With the current economic crisis, our budget has taken a hit just like with everybody's budget," Kim Ramsden, a Peace Corps spokeswoman from the Minneapolis regional office. "The cost to do our work is up, so we've had to scale back in areas."

One major area that the corps has had to scale back is the number of volunteers sent overseas. There are currently 400 volunteer positions the program can no longer support, and nominees are seeing deployments delayed, sometimes indefinitely.

Bys said she made sure she was well-qualified before applying more than a year ago.

Still, it was a long process, which she said "was very intense." She will leave for Ecuador in 2009, nearly two years after applying.

For Bys, the longest wait was for her medical clearance. The health and dental requirements for the Peace Corps are notoriously difficult, and applicants are asked to dedicate a significant amount of time and effort to the process.

The Peace Corps reimburses candidates $275, but this rarely covers all expenses. Bys paid about $1,000 out-of-pocket for checkups, blood work, and dental care.

It's this monetary commitment that makes it particularly difficult for volunteers whose positions were cut.

While medical clearance generally comes within 12 weeks, Bys' took four months to arrive, largely because of personnel cuts at regional offices that left fewer employees to handle the same number of applications as before.

During that waiting period, Bys could only wonder whether the rumors of volunteer cuts she'd been hearing were true and if she would be cut.

"I was becoming really concerned," she said. "I was afraid I'd get a letter saying they were spread too thin."

Currently, 41 volunteers from the UI are serving abroad; there have been 566 since 1961. There were no numbers available on the current number of applicants from the UI.

"This is a temporary disturbance," Ramsden said. "We don't know what the future will hold or what the new administration will do."

And while the Peace Corps is widely seen as vital to America's image overseas, Ramsden said the current situation should not affect that perception.

"Peace Corps is a person-to-person level, and we'll continue doing that. We are still sending the best and brightest Americans overseas," she said. "I don't see any correlation between cutting the number of spots and still sending quality volunteers."