WASHINGTON — The Peace Corps, formed more than 50 years ago to send Americans abroad to perform good works, is in the midst of its most serious challenge, with the number of applicants falling rapidly, leaving the volunteer force at its lowest level in more than a decade.
Recognizing that the organization envisioned by President John F. Kennedy could be endangered, its leaders are scheduled to announce today a series of steps to make it more attractive, including allowing candidates to choose the country where they want to serve, shortening the year-long application period and recruiting more minorities and young people.
"The Peace Corps is a great brand, but we really needed to bring it into the 21st century," Carrie Hessler-Radelet, director of the organization, said ahead of the announcement. "This is the most extensive reform effort our agency has ever undertaken."
The federal agency, which has a $379 million annual budget and sends thousands of volunteers to more than 65 countries to conduct two-year service projects, has at times tangled its applicants in red tape.
In interviews, Peace Corps alumni described waiting on average more than a year before being accepted. Some had come to calling the anxiety they felt "restless applicant syndrome." Under the new guidelines, the steps could be completed in six months.
"Our former process was long and bureaucratic and cumbersome," Hessler-Radelet said. "We feel that today's applicants have career goals and have professional goals and they have strong opinions about where they want to serve. … We want to honor that as best we can."
The Peace Corps will hope to avoid leaving potential volunteers in limbo, part of a package of changes that officials think will make the organization more appealing to the nation's under-30 crowd.
Jessie Beck, 26, who taught English in Madagascar from 2011 to 2013, said she was hesitant to make any personal or professional commitments while waiting to hear back from the Peace Corps.
"I didn't want to get a full-time job, didn't want to get involved with a serious boyfriend and didn't even want to sign a year-long lease. I wanted to be ready to go," she said. "There are definitely people that drop out during the process because a lot can happen in a year that can change your mind about going abroad."
In the past nine months, more than 30,000 potential candidates did not complete their applications, according to the Peace Corps. The number of candidates who have finished them have dropped from a peak of 15,384 in fiscal 2009 to 10,118 in fiscal 2013, a decline of 34 percent. The agency's recruiting prospects suffered setbacks after several volunteers came forward with harrowing accounts of sexual assaults in their host countries.
Hessler-Radelet said she hopes the improvements will encourage more people to apply and boost the agency's number of volunteers, especially among minorities. Of the 7,200 volunteers currently deployed, whites make up 76 percent; blacks, 6 percent; Hispanics, 9 percent; and Asians, 5 percent.
"We want to make it simpler, faster and more personal than ever before," she said. "We don't want to make our application a barrier to entry."
Proposed when Kennedy was a Massachusetts senator running for president, the Peace Corps officially became an agency in 1961 and emerged as a premier destination for young Americans seeking to volunteer and experience the adventure of life in a foreign country.
Since then, more than 215,000 U.S. citizens have served, including former Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., television host Chris Matthews and Hessler-Radelet, who taught at an all-girls high school on the South Pacific island of Western Samoa from 1981 to 1983.
Today, Peace Corps volunteers build bathrooms at elementary schools in Senegal, work with beekeepers in Ghana to expand honey production and bike across Togo teaching villagers the benefits of better nutrition and how to cook enriched porridge.
Under Hessler-Radelet, who served as acting director for nearly two years before her official appointment in June, the Peace Corps has announced a series of initiatives that hint at a transformation.
Last year, the organization for the first time allowed same-sex couples to serve together overseas. It also has introduced programs to prevent sexual assault and protect women in vulnerable locales.
Hessler-Radelet hired 20 staff members in the organization's diversity office to help recruit more minorities and forged partnerships with Hispanic-serving schools and historically black colleges.
The new application will reduce the number of essays from two to one and can be completed in one hour, far less than the eight hours or more it took previously.
About one in three applicants ends up serving with the Peace Corps.
For the first time, candidates will be allowed to pick their preferred destinations or specific programs they would like as specialties, such as education or health. Hessler-Radelet said the new options will create more competition among strong applicants for certain locales.
Sara Scholin Guthrie said she was excited to learn, after submitting her application, that she was being considered for a teaching position in the Pacific Islands. With dreams of beaches and tropical weather, she recalled feeling surprised when Peace Corps officials informed her more than a year later that she would be headed to a rural village in the mountains of Macedonia. Undeterred, she embraced the change and later came to relish it. She met her husband, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, while serving in the Eastern European country from 2011 to 2013. "I came home with the best souvenir possible," she said.
"I loved when you applied that you were willing to go anywhere in the world, but that aspect is not for everyone," said Guthrie, noting that she probably would not have picked Macedonia had she been given the choice. "I would think it would be difficult for some of those countries to sell themselves because if people don't know a lot about it, they probably aren't going to choose it."
Hessler-Radelet said that no matter where volunteers choose to go, the experience will still prove valuable.
"The Peace Corps will really change you in ways that are hard to predict," she said. "Peace Corps service is tough. It's not easy, but most volunteers say it's the most important thing they ever did in their life."