St. Paul’s Charles Stander Recalls Peace Corps Experience

Charles Stander was born and raised in Michigan, but has lived in St. Paul for well over 40 years. For most of those forty years, he’s been a member of Mt. Zion Temple – even got married there. But in between his graduation from Michigan State University (including one semester studying in Israel, at the Jacob Hiatt Institute) and moving to the Twin Cities, he spent more two years serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

In commemoration of last week’s 63rd anniversary of President John F. Kennedy signing an executive order establishing the Peace Corps — ahead of Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey introducing legislation in Congress later in 1961 — Stander recalled how he was inspired to join.

“During junior high, one day back in 1960, my sister was driving me down Court Street, and as we were turning the corner on Michigan Avenue, there was a news program on the radio. John F. Kennedy was announcing the start of a program called the Peace Corps, where young Americans could show the true American spirit of democracy and idealism. And I thought, ‘Yes, that’s for me!’ And that stayed with me for the next several years.”

With few teaching jobs available when he graduated from MSU, he applied to Peace Corps and was accepted to serve in Korea, but first he had to go through three months of training. The training site was a former school, located in the middle of a sugar cane field on the Big Island of Hawaii. There were about 30 in his training group for Rural Health, and all but Stander and one other had been pre-med in college.

“We lived in a dormitory-like situation – very little privacy. We trained in Korean language for six days a week, up to six hours a day. We also had to study how to become medical assistants and outreach workers,” he said. “The two of us who weren’t pre-med had to work harder to learn what we needed to do the job. In the end, when we all took our exam, the other Liberal Artist and I scored the highest.”

Of course, it wasn’t all work. “After classes and on weekends we’d go swimming around a waterfall. The training center also did cross-cultural training; for example, we ate southern Korean food, which is very hot and spicy!”

Once in Korea, Stander headed out to the southern part of the peninsula, to a small farming community, In-Song-Do Township, where a County Health Center was located.

“Every health center had a full-time doctor: ours had degrees in both western and [eastern] medicine,” he said. “We also had an RN from a nearby nursing school. For a country that was still in development at that time, they emphasized health and education. When I was there, the GNP was growing at a rate of 20 percent per year.

Although there were other Peace Corps volunteers, PCVs in the area, Stander chose to live “…in a yo-in-suk, which is a rooming house. There was a family living there and they provided room and board. All of us PCVs really concentrated on getting to know our local Korean communities. The Koreans were great drinkers and so it was fun to go out with them.”

It was when Stander was transferred to another clinic in the mountainous northern part of the county– Chun Cheong City, a provincial capital — that he got to meet some other Jews resident in Korea. The town was only 15 miles from the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. As a result, there was quite a large U.S. military presence in the area, with a number of Jewish soldiers.

“There were some Jewish Peace Corps volunteers in Korea at that time, but none close to me,” he said. “And the U.S. Army had some Jewish soldiers. We’d all get together for the Jewish holidays at the Army chapel. There was a rabbi who was the chaplain who described all they had to go through to kasher the facilities for Passover. He was amazed how diligent the Korean employees were to clean the kitchen. We received Kosher for Passover ‘CARE’ packages to take back to our villages.”

Stander turned some of his matzah from that package into a cross-cultural experience for his Korean colleagues at the clinic. “I invited my co-workers over to my house for lunch and made matzah brei for them!”

As great as it was to be with other Jews, Stander never felt alone or missing the company of other Americans. “InKorea, everyone becomes your relative. And everyone is so friendly. It was plain wonderful!”

While Stander has forgotten almost all of his Korean language, he hasn’t forgotten the country and Korea hasn’t forgotten him. In 2015, the Korean government invited the Peace Corps volunteers who had served there in the early years. About 30 accepted the invitation, including Stander.

“The Korean government wanted us to see how Peace Corps had contributed to the development of the country,” he said. “They have a single-payer health care system. Their system handles everyone – visitors, temporary workers, etc.”

Stander visited the old health center and the town now has 100,000 residents.

“I was shocked to see the difference between it and what I know is available at public health centers in St. Paul. They put us to shame!” he said. “I visited the family I’d lived with then, too. I’m not good at correspondence, so I hadn’t been in contact them since I left.”

Clearly, Stander made an impression on Korea and its people as an American Peace Corps Volunteer – and maybe even a little bit as a Jew.