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Sargent Shriver’s Lasting—and Growing—Legacy

Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr. guided the Peace Corps from its inception in 1961 (when it was a nascent vision of service and citizen diplomacy) to establish a renowned track record of success over the past half century, in which more than 200,000 volunteers and trainees have served in 139 countries.

The legacy of Shriver’s leadership with the Peace Corps and later with the Office on Economic Opportunity and Special Olympics has reached and changed millions of lives—of both those empowered and those who served—from impoverished communities across rural and urban America to huts and villages in developing nations throughout the world. Yet one of the greatest gifts he leaves us is the foundation to build on those accomplishments to scale-up service as a direly needed “soft power” alternative to establish international understanding and collaboration in a volatile world. As Sarge put it, so simply but powerfully: “Caring for others is the practice of peace.”

Sarge Shriver’s unquenchable idealism today is being advanced by a new generation of social entrepreneurs such as Dr. Ed O’Neil, founder of OmniMed and chair of the Brookings International Volunteering Project health service policy group. With the help of Peace Corps volunteers and USAID-supported Volunteers for Prosperity, O’Neil has fielded an impressive service initiative in Ugandan villages that has expanded the capacity and reach of local health-service volunteers engaged in malaria prevention and education on basic hygiene. 

Timothy Shriver, who succeeded his parents, Sarge and Eunice, at the helm of the Special Olympics, speaks eloquently on the move of a second generation from politics to building civil society coalitions promoting soft power acts of service and love, one at a time. This impulse is echoed in the Service World policy platform which hundreds of NGOs and faith-based groups, corporations and universities have launched to scale-up the impact of international service initiatives. This ambitious undertaking was first announced by longtime Shriver protégé former Senator Harris Wofford at a Service Nation forum convened on the morning of President Obama’s Cairo speech in which he called for a new wave of global service and interfaith initiatives.

I had the privilege of serving as a national director of the VISTA program inspired by Shriver and  to work alongside Senator Wofford and John Bridgeland, President George W. Bush’s  former White House Freedom Corps director, who have co-chaired the Brookings International Volunteering Project policy team. Along with Tim Shriver, they have ignited the Service World call to action, together with Michelle Nunn of Points of Light Institute, Steve Rosenthal of the Building Bridges Coalition, Kevin Quigley of the National Peace Corps Association and many others.

The Obama administration and Congress would best honor the life and legacy of Sarge Shriver by calling for congressional hearings and fast- tracking agency actions outlined in the Service World platform and naming the global service legislation after him. Coupled with innovative private-sector and federal agency innovations, the legislation would authorize Global Service Fellowships, link volunteer capacity-building to USAID development programs such as  Volunteers for Prosperity, and double the Peace Corps to reach a combined goal of 100,000 global service volunteers annually—a goal first declared by JFK.

Those who promote opportunity and service as vehicles to advance peace and international collaboration will continue to draw inspiration from Sargent Shriver’s indefatigable quest for social justice―from the time he talked then-Senator John F. Kennedy into intervening in the unjust jailing of Martin Luther King, Jr. to his refusal to accept wanton violence and impoverished conditions in any corner of the world.

Information on offering online tributes to the Shriver family and donations in lieu of flowers requested by the family of Sargent Shriver can be found at www.sargentshriver.org .

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