Thousands of volunteers, their friends and their families celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps on Sunday on the grounds that serve as the final resting place of the man who brought the service organization to life.
Many wore traditional garb from Africa, South America or Asia, souvenirs from their time serving as Peace Corps volunteers around the world. The ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery's Memorial Amphitheater drew close to 5,000 people.
Eileen Smith of Bowie, Md., wore a scarf from Swaziland, where she served from 1983 to 1985 in an agricultural program. Smith said the two years she spent there, during apartheid in neighboring South Africa and a time of political change in Swaziland, shaped the rest of her life.
"It changed my whole outlook," she said. "You grow up fast."
Melissa Horton of Lancaster, Ohio, served with Smith in Swaziland and turned her experience into a love of travel.
"We know how find bathrooms in any language," Horton said.
Sunday's ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was designed to celebrate 50 years since President John F. Kennedy signed the Peace Corps into existence by executive order -- and to honor the 280 volunteers who died while serving.
Al Guskin was there when Kennedy, then a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, delivered an impromptu speech at the University of Michigan in October 1960 and challenged students to give two years of service. Guskin called the beginning of the corps a "spontaneous combustion."
In a matter of days, about 1,000 University of Michigan students responded with a pledge to serve. Within months of the agency's creation on March 1, 1961, the number of people who had applied to join reached 11,000.
Since then, the corps has sent more than 200,000 people to 139 countries. Volunteers carried flags from each of those countries over Memorial Bridge following Sunday's ceremony.
While reflecting on the past, though, the the ceremony also touched on the uncertain future for the agency.
"Some wonder whether the Peace Corps can be effective in a changing world," said former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who volunteered in the Dominican Republic from 1966 to 1968. "It must change to keep pace."
As more people worldwide live in urban areas than ever before, Dodd said, the organization needs to think more about things like health care and urban planning.
Speakers also called on more skilled volunteers, including return volunteers who have spent their careers accumulating knowledge and skills that could be used in the corps.
"I call them the retired but not tired," said Liberian Vice President Joseph Boakai.