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  • 25 Sep 2023 by Kelsey McMahon

    It’s beneficial for any organization to pause, reflect, and ideate. This past July, Women of Peace Corps Legacy (WPCL)’s Advisory Board did just that at their annual retreat.

    A total of 13 women gathered with three goals in mind:

    1. Create an environment to strengthen connections among Advisory Board members.
    2. Set values and a vision for the next five years to build on our ten years of success.
    3. Draft a strategic plan framework with actionable objectives to further our mission.

    To deepen our personal connections with one another, the day kicked off with each board member sharing a photo that sparked joy and its sentimental meaning.

    The women then got down to business, splitting into three smaller groups for a branding activity to write  down key words they associate with WPCL. The larger team then narrowed the list to four core values and developed a supporting vision statement.

    Women of Peace Corps Legacy Values: community, empowerment, intergenerational, celebration

    Our Vision Statement: We envision a diverse Peace Corps community supporting the empowerment and education of women and girls globally.

    Representatives from each of the five committees – Awards, Fundraising, Mentoring, Outreach Events & Communications, and Officers – presented their goals with actionable steps for goal achievement. Collectively, these goals would provide the framework for the organization’s strategic plan for the next five years.

    The board and committee chairs will refer to the values and our mission statement when planning events and special programs. You can also expect to see them take a prominent place on our new and improved website being developed – stay tuned!

    The day concluded with a gratitude exercise in which every member shared what they appreciated about the person to their right. The WPCL team was buzzing with excitement for the organization’s future!

    Here’s what a few board members shared after the event:

    “What a great retreat! It is no surprise we love this organization - it is because of women like you all,” gushed Maryann Minutello.

    “It is a gift to be among such thoughtful, engaged, wise women. Onward and upward,” said Lynn Kneedler.

    “It was a very productive day, but I most appreciated the chance to get to know the other women on a more personal level,” shared Kelsey McMahon.

    1. If you would like to be part in next year’s retreat and take a more prominent role in the WPCL community, consider joining the Advisory Committee. Simply email us at and we’ll share details on our next meeting. We hope to see you soon!


  • 08 Jun 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.  Four women in theatre seats with one woman standing behind them

    “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 legal.  

    “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. Women of Peace Corps Legacy (WPCL) was suggested, 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 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. 

    Five women stand in a line across a hallway 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

  • 31 Mar 2023 by Vetty Dort

    Carol Spahn became the twenty-first Peace Corps Director this year. Her Peace Corps journey started as a Volunteer  in Romania, but she also served as a Peace Corps’ Malawi’s Country Director. Carol has the experience needed to take the agency’s intercultural development to the next level. Her thoughtful approach and community-driven focus enabled her to successfully serve as executive director for an African nonprofit as well as the senior vice president of operations for Women for Women International.

    Women of Peace Corps Legacy’s co-founder and former Peace Corps Director, Jody Olsen sat down with Carol to talk about everything from lessons learned from service to advice for aspiring leaders. 


    Jody: How do women leaders help shape you and your leadership?

    Carol: I’ll start with you Jody, because I’ve watched you lead the organization through an incredibly challenging decision. How you cheered everyone on through what was – I can only say a traumatic moment in our history [and] a moment when we were all hands-on deck, coming together for a common purpose – it was powerful!

    I enjoyed watching your leadership of the agency during that time, and I learned a lot from you. There are different female leaders that inspired [me] in different ways. Sarah Gerwin, who works at the Peace Corps now, was a Volunteer in Romania. We both stayed [in country] for an extra year. I worked for GE Capital; she, for a consulting firm that supported a GE Capital bank. [After] a GE Capital’s strategy [team meeting], Sarah pulled [me aside] and said, “You need to speak up! You know more than you think.” That has always stuck with me.


    Jody: What is a moment or two from Volunteer service that has shaped you?

    Carol: It’s hard to pinpoint one moment, because there’s this cumulative impact of moments when you reflect on it. I think the biggest skill that probably any volunteer learns – and one I certainly learned was [to be curious]. It was four years after the fall of communism, and there were all kinds of perceptions, stereotypes, and understandings of what it meant to live under a communist regime. You go in with those perceptions and stereotypes whether you want to or not.
    I think that whole experience taught me to be curious rather than judgmental or make assumptions.

    Our cross-cultural training taught us [Volunteers] about the art, history, and Romanian life. But you know, we had some challenges, [such as] ordering food in restaurants. We would order a piece of meat. [The servers] would bring us bread, salad, French fries, and charge us for all of it. We would fight it because we were Peace Corps Volunteers and didn’t have any money. It took us six months to figure out that, that’s just the way it was. Now anytime I’m feeling that indignant self-righteousness, I step back and say, “What’s really going on here?”

    At our root, we’re humans. We have similar needs and wants. We want to be seen, heard and understood. When you approach something with curiosity, you don’t end up with those embarrassing [misunderstandings].

    But you [need to] stick up for yourself when it’s not a cross-cultural moment; when it's a “I need to step up and own this space.” It’s a delicate balance to walk and [everyone] makes mistakes along the way.


    Jody: You just hit at the heart of being a woman in a leadership position on a team: When is it
    respectful, when is it humble, and when is it time to speak? How do we use our voice
    without being judged in different ways than often men are being judged?

    Carol: I took a great cross-cultural negotiation course and we had to practice some of these [situations] and think about what evidence we were bringing or how we were negotiating a particular situation. There was a situation where I was in a finance role and my background was accounting and finance. The board asked me to step into an executive director role temporarily. I had young kids, I had taken this position as a part-time position. I said, “Look, I’ll do this, but I can’t do that job and my old job at the same time. I’m going to take this job and we’re going to fill the other position.

    I said, “You're hiring me to do this job, right?” and they said, “Yes.” I said, “Do you want me to do the full job?” and they said, “Yes.” And I said, “Then I would like the full salary for that job, and I will do what it takes to get it done.”

    Had I not asked or advocated for myself, I would have been doing two jobs for the same salary. You know that was sort of expected. I certainly grew up in a family that values hard work, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept a situation that’s not going to work for you and your family.


    Jody: How do you see the agency rebuilding in the next year to three years? What’s it going
    to look like?

    Carol: It’s been a journey over the last couple of years. You never know what any day might bring in this vast beautiful morass of humanity we call, the Peace Corps. There wasn’t ever a time to step back and say “Alright, we’re going to work on our systems,” or “We’re going to do our record keeping,” or we’re going to do any number of things that you know you should do, but can never get to.

    What we tried to do – and your leadership started this Jody – was to say let’s shore up! Let's contribute in every way we can to the COVID-19 response in countries, so that we can keep our staff fresh, engaged, and motivated. Let’s be the strongest Peace Corps we can possibly be for when Volunteers come back.

    The programming piece has been in the works for 5-8 years! This comprehensive system starting with logical project frameworks, developed from the ground up with host country nationals, volunteers, partners, and counterparts.


    Alongside that, was a revamp of the reporting systems. The reporting system tied to the grants is more user friendly and it incorporates these logical project frameworks. Then we went through a process of training design alignment with Volunteer competencies. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a core competency for the Peace Corps. This beautifully comprehensive, aligned system with built-in reporting functions where eventually a Volunteer will be able to [access] a dashboard to report back to communities or government partners in unique ways. That is a beautiful thing! That is rolling out now.

    We talk a lot about security incident systems and trainings around sexual assault. There’s a lot of work done with our teams around diversity, equity, and inclusion. The beautiful thing that comes out of these discussions is that with logical project frameworks and everything loaded into the system, they can run a report [to answer any given question], such as percent of projects related to youth development.

    This is the largest generation of youth in history. Ninety percent of whom live in developing countries. It can result in a demographic dividend, or it can result in mass unemployment and social interest. We are using strategic foresight to say what is coming down the road? How is it going to affect us? Are the number of college students declining in US colleges?

    We’re building on our strengths and [a community’s capacity]. How can we not just teach youth in a secondary school, but link them to opportunity? I feel like this is our moment to shine, to step up, and bring the voices of young people and others in the furthest reaches of communities to the table in a unique way.

    At this point, we’re building on strengths, making sure we retain all of the things that make Peace Corps magical and expanding our impact even more. We’re looking to expand some of the certification opportunities. [We’ve been exploring questions such as,] “What if every volunteer and counterpart got a project design and management certificate?”

    This is all long-term building off of our strategic plan. We’re building a holistic picture where
    some countries might only need or want Peace Corps Response Volunteers. Others might be in a
    completely different place where they’re trying to build up their own local volunteer network.
    To do all of that, we need to have efficient systems. We need to standardize to help us streamline
    and modernize some of our basic functions. A lot of it’s done, but we have room to grow.

    The other piece of it is that the pace of change is just going to keep increasing. We have to be
    creative, we have to be adaptive, and Virtual Service is just one of, I hope, many tools we
    develop. We’re seeing [Virtual Service’s effectiveness] in Ukraine. We have 18 virtual
    engagements in an active war zone. That just gives me the chills. The Ukrainian ambassador to
    the US was at our event last night and she said, “We love Peace Corps! What can I do to help
    people understand what it means even to have Virtual Service [support]?” That’s a game

    A lot of our [ideas] address some of the equity and ownership issues at a more structural level.
    Again, it’ll take time, but I’m just excited it’s been an all-agency effort. Everyone contributing through the strategic plan and all of the working groups. It’s a very inspiring time right now as we build back up and with everybody thinking about how we seize this opportunity to be better.

    Jody: How are the countries responding to us returning? Do we feel comfortable Congress
    is behind us and working along?

    Carol: We asked every country “Do you want us?” before we invited Volunteers to go back. They have been asking “When are you coming back?” [over and over]. We have a backlog of 12 formal invitations from countries that want the Peace Corps to re-enter or for new Peace Corps programs. It means something to have volunteers in country. The symbolism, the commitment, the fact that Americans care enough to go and be a part of [their community], especially after this period of isolation and divisiveness is powerful.

    We want to get people back out there and that is my plea to all of you: do everything you can to share the word, so we can get over this period of holding back. That’s why we are launching a new campaign. It is a bold invitation with energy, passion, and strength behind it.

    It’s been incredible to see and hear leaders say, “Please come back. You’re part of the fabric of our country.” Uzbekistan invited us back and would like 10,000 volunteers! Mongolia wants 1,000. We were so excited to swear in the first group of Volunteers [in Vietnam, too].


    Jody: If you had a piece of advice for all of us, what would it be?

    Carol: I feel a little conscious giving advice to people I admire so much. I think that as women, sometimes we let fear – fear of failure, fear of judgment, and fear of people not liking us – get in the way of what we’re capable of. My advice would be to reflect on how fear might be holding you back.


    For the full recorded interview, visit the Women of Peace Corps Legacy’s YouTube channel.