On March 1, we as a nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. Since 1961, more than 200,000 volunteers have taken up President Kennedy's challenge to serve our nation. In doing so, we have improved the lives of people in 139 countries across the globe: teaching English, building small businesses, preserving the environment, addressing basic health needs and on and on.

Just as importantly, the Peace Corps provides a frame through which the citizens of the world view America. Through volunteers, the principles of democracy and freedom, the concepts of liberty and justice are no longer just platitudes.

Nor are they delivered at the end of a rifle barrel.

The humility, compassion and character of the United States are felt in person around the communal dinner bowl, at the front of the classroom, in sharing endless cups of tea. All of this is accomplished every year by thousands of Americans at the cost of just one F-22 fighter plane.

Unlike other development agencies that finish projects and leave, Peace Corps volunteers stay. For two years, they learn the local language, live with families, share their meals and integrate into the culture. They are our nation's soft diplomats, revealing to millions of people across the world the real America.

Their impact is so pervasive that it is hard to find a leader in a developing country who has not been touched by the Peace Corps in some way. Alejandro Toledo, former President of Peru, says, "The Peace Corps opens a window to the world for many people, I went through that window and became President of my country."

In turn, volunteers come home to join businesses and government, to teach, and to raise families with a global perspective that enriches us here.

As you listen to Peace Corps volunteers share their stories, which they will do readily if asked, it is impossible to miss the profound impact their experiences have on their lives.

Gayle Linkletter, the leader of the Cincinnati Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (CARV), refers to it as a "Graduate School for Life." Ken Hackett, President of Catholic Relief Services, was a volunteer in Ghana. Chris Matthews served in Swaziland. Returned volunteers are scattered throughout business, government and the non-profit sectors applying what they have learned every day.

As we turn our attention to the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, it is important that we win the hearts and minds of the people there. Investments in economic development and security are critical. But in order for the people to understand the real America, rather than the portrait being drawn by extremists, they must see, touch and hear real Americans. The Peace Corps provided that hands-on experience throughout Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today and tomorrow we must be ready to answer the same call in North Africa.

As Congress debates who will be the winners and losers in the budget, they would be wise to assess our international investments. If done objectively, it seems clear that the Peace Corps, at the cost of one fighter plane, is a bargain.

After 50 years, volunteers across the world continue to deliver on the vision of President Kennedy. We are a better country and a better world for their efforts.
 
For information on Cincinnati Area Returned Volunteers, visit www.cincinnatirpca.org
 
Steve Driehaus served in the Peace Corps in Senegal from 1988-1990. He was U.S. Representative for Ohio's 1st
Congressional District from 2009-2011.