Emily Haines of South Portland, center, poses with residents during her 2007-2009 service as a Peace Corp volunteer in Cameroon. The Peace Corps is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Contributed / Emily Haines

Volunteers from Cape Elizabeth and South Portland say their service in the Peace Corps, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this month, helped define their careers and their lives.

Kathy Crosson of Cape Elizabeth and Emily Haines and Nate Spence of South Portland are among the more than 240,000 American volunteers who have helped grow crops, ensured clean water and provided education in 141 countries since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961.

Crosson, now 72, said that in 1970 she took Kennedy’s patriotic mandate to do for one’s country to heart.

“I had known for a long, long time that I wanted to serve,” she said.

Kathy Crosson, of Cape Elizabeth, visits a latrine in Togo, West Africa, during her 1970-1972 service as a Peace Corps volunteer. Contributed / Kathy Crosson

After graduating from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, the Connecticut native spent 1970-1972 serving in Togo, West Africa, as a Peace Corps volunteer. In the first week, she said, she lived in a mud house in a village. Right away, she was made to feel welcome by the locals. About 20 children, and their parents, she said, came to visit, bearing greetings and meals they had prepared for the new visitor.

“They wanted to make sure I had food!” she said.

Some of the work, she recalled, was manual labor, such as helping to build latrines, but much of her work involved education. She taught youth about basic health care and also worked in clinics and medical dispensaries instructing residents on wound care, a balanced diet, the need to boil their water and the use of mosquito nets to prevent the spread of malaria.

Haines and Spence, both now 37, went to Africa to help other people, but they also found something they didn’t expect: each other. They both served in Cameroon, Spence from 2005-2007 and Haines from 2007-2009, but since their time overseas the two have married and and live in South Portland.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, center, poses with Kathy Crosson, 72, to his left, and other members of the Maine Peace Corps Association at a meeting in March 2020 to advocate for increased funding for the program. Contributed / Kathy Crosson

They performed agricultural work, showing local farmers how to protect soil from overuse, and what relationships local trees, shrubs and other natural vegetation had to cultivated crops. Haines grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of a Westbrook native. Spence grew up in North Carolina, the son of a United Methodist minister, and often spent summers on his grandparents’ farm in Georgia. Both said their parents gave them a sense of duty to volunteer to help others through local charities.

“I grew up in a very service-oriented family,” Haines said.

Both signed up for the Peace Corps after graduating from college. Spence remembered living in a mudbrick house with no electricity or running water. His drinking water was stored in a barrel outside, and he had to boil and filter it before drinking.

Spence also remembered the positive attitudes from the local residents. When he helped a local farmers group build a fruit tree nursery, what to him was a small gesture became a momentous event for the community when it was finished.

“It was a huge celebration,” Spence said.

All three volunteers described careers following their service as a reflection of the work they did overseas. Crosson, upon returning to the United States, went on to work for 30 years for the National Institutes of Health. Half of that time was spent at the NIH National Cancer Institute, where she built a network of educators to work with cancer patients to supplement doctors’ advice.

“That was new back then,” Crosson said.

Haines, who already had a degree in art illustration, is an art teacher at Old Orchard Beach High School. She said her Peace Corps work had a role in her career choice.

“It really did solidify my commitment to community-based work,” she said.

Spence had a degree in journalism, but after his service he began working with another nonprofit, and a year after coming home he found himself going back, this time to Cameroon, to work with coffee farmers. He then worked for years for various U.S.-funded development projects in Africa.

“It pushed me in that direction, for sure,” he said.

His interest in agriculture led to work in the food business, and today he works at Hannaford Bros. Co. in Scarborough in category management.

All three said the Peace Corps has been a positive influence worldwide. Spence said that was obvious during his trips abroad, where he routinely met people who had worked with Peace Corps volunteers, and to a person they all praised the corps’ work.

“The Peace Corps has generated a lot of goodwill for America around the world,” he said.

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