In 1964, Lauraine Effress graduated from college and immediately signed up for the Peace Corps, where she was accepted and sent to a former French colony, Africa’s Ivory Coast. Fifty years later, Effress, co-coordinator of the Ventura County chapter of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, along with other members, met on a Tuesday to discuss the future of the organization in the shadow of looming budget cuts.

Lauraine Effress makes the traditional West African staplefood, foutou, while serving in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, for the Peace Corps, circa 1964.

On Thursday, March 16, President Donald Trump released a $1.1 trillion budget outline that proposes a $54 billion increase in defense spending and coincides with cuts, in some cases astronomical cuts, to many federal departments, one such being the State Department. The Peace Corps operates under the State Department, which, should Trump’s request be adopted, would see a 29 percent budget cut.

Effress says that a cut that large in the State Department budget could mean dissolving the entirety of the program or, at the very least, a severe reduction in operations.

“The Peace Corps is probably one of the most effective diplomatic missions that we have around the world,” said Effress. “Of course we are organizing to protect the Peace Corps and lobby for its continuation.”

The Ventura chapter of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers boasts a membership of 150 who have served in a wide variety of locations: Malawi, India and Niger, among dozens of others. Nationwide, Returned Peace Corps members top 200,000.

At Tuesday’s reception, guest speaker Glenn Blumhorst, director of the National Peace Corps Association met with the chapter to address concerns as part of a nationwide tour to rally former members to contact their representatives in support of the Peace Corps.

While Trump’s budget is merely a suggestion, Blumhorst says that actions are being taken in hopes that a future budget submitted by Congress will either leave the $410 million annual Peace Corps budget alone or, at the very least, mitigate any cut.

“Our reaction and response to that is to work closely with members of Congress to ensure that they develop their budget that is providing a level funding for the Peace Corps, no less than the current funding,” said Blumhorst. There are currently over 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers in 61 countries, though a mandate to maintain 10,000 volunteers hasn’t been met in many years. Blumhorst says that the Corps could sustain a marginal budget cut, but anything further would be “catastrophic.”

“We’d have to start reducing volunteer numbers and closing countries down, depending on the level of the cuts,” said Blumhorst. “That’s not something we’d want to see.”

Richard Pidduck offered up his ranch to host Tuesday night’s reception. Pidduck spent one year in the Peace Corps, from 1969 to 1970, in India, where he specialized in milk production. Because Hinduism reveres the cow, Pidduck says he worked to provide milk as an alternative source of protein. Now he operates a citrus and avocado ranch in Santa Paula, and reconnected with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers 10 years ago.

Pidduck says that losing the Peace Corps would be a blow for Americans, adding that he hopes the budget request is “dead on arrival.”

“It’s an invaluable opportunity for Americans to deliver to other cultures and to gain a whole new understanding of their own culture by that experience,” said Pidduck. “I’ve always felt that the Peace Corps is a wonderful program for its objectives, but also what it gave back to our country, in the form of a more active citizenry.”

“Research has shown we tend to volunteer more time and have more charitable contributions and be more involved in our communities,” said Blumhorst. “That’s what helps make America great.”

For the cost, the Peace Corps is a very efficient means by which to bolster national security, says Blumhorst, relating a recent story that he heard from an ambassador from Kosovo who, he says, told him that the Peace Corps is important to “help us understand what America is all about” and vice versa, otherwise receiving information “only from Russia.”

When Effress worked in the Ivory Coast, she taught English to the native population, most of whom could speak French fluently. She later transferred to a health clinic, where she was taught prenatal care. With the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, dues collected are used to bolster current Peace Corps members’ projects, such as donating a $2,000 stipend to a health clinic in Honduras to provide operations for children born with club foot or facial deformities.

Effress says that wherever you look, one can find a former Peace Corps volunteer.

“From elected officials to doctors, nurses, child-care workers and teachers,” says Effress. “One of the people here in Ventura County is the director of United Way. Peace Corps volunteers have really just spread out and gone into every possible walk of life you can imagine, and many have continued to travel and maintain their interest.”

Congresswoman Julia Brownly, D-Westlake Village, provided a statement to the VCReporter on the Peace Corps.

“The Peace Corps is an important national asset that promotes goodwill, augments our diplomacy efforts, supports international development, and promotes stability across the globe. In Congress, I have urged the House Appropriations Committee to fund the Peace Corps, because it is a good return-on-investment for the American taxpayer. As more than 120 retired generals and admirals have told us: slashing funding for our diplomacy and development agencies will not keep us safe. Instead, these reckless cuts would destabilize volatile regions, neglect America’s international priorities, and undermine our national security.”

For more information on the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Ventura County, contact Lauraine Effress at spareribbon@yahoo.com.