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Upper Valley Among National Leaders for Peace Corps Volunteers

Lebanon — The Upper Valley has, for the second straight year, cracked the top 10 list for Peace Corps volunteers per capita , according to rankings released yesterday.

The region tied for ninth place nationwide, with 8.6 volunteers for every 100,000 residents. Last year, it landed in sixth place, with 9.9 volunteers per capita, according to 2011 Peace Corps data.

There are 363 metropolitan statistical areas counted overall, Peace Corps spokeswoman Elizabeth Chamberlain said.

There are more than 8,000 volunteers working two-year stints in 76 countries worldwide.

The Twin States themselves fared well in state rankings. For the second year in a row, Vermont landed in the second slot for highest rate of per capita volunteers, while New Hampshire jumped up a slot from last year to end up in a tie for fourth place.

“That’s not a coincidence,” Chamberlain said, adding that Maine made eighth place this year. “I think there’s a big interest in community and community service in northern New England. I think you see that with all three states.”

Vicky Pridgen, who volunteered as a municipal development volunteer in Niger several years ago, joked that it wasn’t really news to her.

“I say it’s not surprising because the Upper Valley seems like an area that does have a focus on community,” said Pridgen, a near-lifelong Hanover resident who manages the Wilder Center, a renovated church on Route 5 in Wilder.

She added that, although it’s hard to generalize why any one person might want to join the Peace Corps, it can be argued that smaller, rural New England towns might bestow their residents with a sense of community conducive to working in small towns and villages abroad.

Marian White, a Tunbridge resident who returned from the South Pacific island of Vanuatu about a year ago, said she wasn’t sure why the Upper Valley and the Twin States ranked so high, but offered a possibility.

“I think there’s a fairly high level of education (in the area), which increases peoples’ awareness of other countries and the advantages we have just by the luck of being born where we’re born,” said White, who joined the Peace Corps at 62 years old and called the experience “terrific.”

According to Chamberlain, who grew up in Maine, New Englanders offer more to the Peace Corps than the toughness and work ethic for which they’re known. She said the organization often looks for people with backgrounds in education, agriculture and environmental issues, a population that’s well-represented in the region .

Catherine Coles, a Hanover resident who volunteered for the Peace Corps in the 1960s, said the intangibles are important too.

“There’s a sense (in the Upper Valley) of needing to be self-sufficient, to take care of yourself but be willing to help other people too,” Coles said.

Though she lived in Chicago immediately before spending two years volunteering with the Peace Corps in Uganda and one teaching there on her own accord, in 1983 Coles moved to Hanover to take a teaching job at Dartmouth.

The position? Anthropology — and African Studies.

“I think it’s great,” Coles said of the rankings. “Because I’ve always felt that the Peace Corps experience is every bit as important, if not more important, to the country that the volunteers come from.”

The Fort Collins-Loveland, Colo. metropolitan area took the top spot this year in per capita volunteers, with 14.7 volunteers per 100,000 residents. With 8.1 volunteers per capita, Washington, D.C. ended up in first place on the states list, just ahead of Vermont, with 7.2.

Chamberlain said that while the District was counted because its residents wouldn’t fit into a state otherwise, she’s gotten her share of backlash from zealous residents of the Green Mountain State.

“As Vermonters never fail to point out to me,” she joked, “it’s not actually a state, and shouldn’t be counted.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.