WASHINGTON — The Ebola virus prompted the biggest evacuation in Peace Corps history last week when 340 volunteers were withdrawn from West Africa. But the agency's director vows that the program will return when the situation there is safe.
"It was a tough decision," Carrie Hessler-Radelet, 57, told Capital Download on Monday, "but we thought that the very nature of our volunteers' work, the fact that they are living and working in communities, exposed them perhaps to a degree that we felt the risk was just too great."
Two Peace Corps volunteers who came into contact with a person who later died of Ebola are still in a 21-day isolation regimen, but she says they have shown no symptoms of the disease.
"We are committed to bringing our volunteers back to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone just as soon as we possibly can, and our volunteers want to go back," Hessler-Radelet said in an interview on USA TODAY's weekly video newsmaker series. She noted that the health infrastructure in the region is weak, "so it's going to be a while" before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the State Department and the Peace Corps agree it's safe to return — "several months, for sure."
Turbulence around the world has affected Peace Corps operations this year to an unprecedented degree, leading to evacuations of volunteers from Ukraine, Kenya and now West Africa. The Peace Corps has more than 7,000 volunteers stationed abroad.
"Our volunteers are at the places where they're needed the most," she says. "Sometimes that means they're in places that are not as stable as our country, but it means they are working in some of our world's most important development challenges, that they are really in the forefront."
Four generations of Hessler-Radelet's family have served in the Peace Corps: Her grandparents in Malaysia, her aunt in Turkey and her nephew in Mozambique. Hessler-Radelet and her husband volunteered in Western Samoa.
Since the Senate confirmed her nomination in June, she has been working to encourage applications from more African Americans and Hispanics. As of last year, the agency has allowed same-sex couples to serve together. The Peace Corps is offering more technical training so volunteers can tap new technology and social media.
The Peace Corps also has changed its rules to allow applicants to specify where in the world they would like to serve, although half say they would be willing to go wherever needed.
The most popular location requested?
"Fiji was right up there," she said.