Western Illinois University's Peace Corps Fellows program, which is a unit of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Supporters said the program's fellows have accomplished a great deal for rural communities in Illinois.
“They have provided (more than) 330 jobs in communities of less than 2,500 over the last 25 years,” said Dwight Reynolds, Area Director for USDA Rural Development - Illinois.
“If that’s not what our main mission is, which is to help develop rural Illinois, nothing is. That’s what makes the partnership good.”
Reynolds said USDA Rural Development has provided almost $1.2 million in grant funding to WIU’s Peace Corps Fellows program in the last 23 years. He said the grants help communities pay a fee to WIU for using the volunteers.
Reynolds said it is money well spent because it produces results.
“We can see businesses coming up in these towns. There’s economic development happening in these towns. There’s infrastructure happening in these towns,” he said.
Reynolds was in Macomb for a luncheon to mark the program’s anniversary. He was joined by Matthew Harris, Business & Cooperative Programs Specialist with USDA Rural Development – Illinois.
Harris said the program helps combat the brain drain commonly found in rural communities as younger people seek jobs in urban areas.
“Creating job opportunities in those (rural) communities is how you keep them alive. Otherwise every small, rural community in Illinois and every other state in the country slowly loses population, loses resources, and dies,” said Harris.
He said the program helps USDA Rural Development reach more people and businesses than it could on its own.
Scott McFarland, Executive Director for the Serve Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, also attended the event.
McFarland said he oversees the AmeriCorps program for the entire state. He said much of the AmeriCorps programming is done in rural areas but he also has members doing work in larger cities, including Chicago. He said they’ve served in 101 communities in 28 counties across the state.
“We call AmeriCorps the domestic Peace Corps. Instead of going to another country to serve, you’re staying here in your community to serve,” McFarland said.
“We have seen that when you have one or two folks who are working intensively to bring in new ideas … it can make a world of difference and bring in new jobs and new people living in the communities.”