During World War I, a new idea captured the imagination of those who rejected war: Engage young people in voluntary service projects to rebuild what war destroyed. This is the origin of the “work camp” model, which evolved to provide urgently needed reconstruction in Europe after WWII. Work campers helped build refugee housing developments in Germany and France and assisted in flood-damaged Holland, Austria, and Switzerland. In 1948, AFSC introduced the Quaker International Voluntary Service (QIVS), which allowed young people to overcome cultural barriers by sharing the lives as well as the tasks of other people. 

By 1960, Quaker work camps had expanded to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as Central America and Cuba. The Service Committee was one of many organizations using this method to motivate and train the next generation of peace builders. Our Voluntary International Service Association (VISA), attracted thousands of young idealists who made a two-year commitment to provide service and support to communities in need, while enriching their own lives in many ways. The experience was life changing for participants, and the program helped inspire President Kennedy’s Peace Corps.

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  • Eight young people standing on tables working on the ceiling of a building.
    In 1947, campers did much building and repair in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a southern French town that hid thousands of Jews and others from the Nazis.
  • People of different ages sitting in a room together.
    Pastor André Trocmé, spiritual leader in Le Chambon, holds a discussion group—a critical part of the camp experience.
  • Young people work together, shoveling soil into wheelbarrows.
    AFSC tried to balance the numbers of men and women at each camp and, over time, traditional male-female divisions of labor broke down.
  • Young men and women sitting in a semi-circle facing one young man.
    AFSC asked David Richie (far left) to help campers with post-war reconstruction programs in Poland, Finland, Germany, Italy, and England.
  • Young men and women of different races shovel soil into wooden wheelbarrows.
    These campers repair a dike in the Netherlands in 1948. For many participants, work camps offered their first experience with people of other nationalities and races.
  • Young men and women sitting in a circle together, singing and playing instruments.
    Work camps usually had about 20 volunteers—half from the native country and half from abroad. It was common to find 10 different nationalities living together in one camp.
  • A young woman holding a spoon standing over a young girl, talking with two other young women.
    Campers at Jalacingo in Veracruz, Mexico worked closely with the local public health nurse to help eliminate intestinal parasites.
  • Four young men hold hands and crouch down to form a chain going down a hillside.
    A human chain moves 20-foot sections of pipe for the water system in a rural teachers’ training center in Lafond, Haiti.
  • Young man teaches nine children in an open-air classroom.
    Tony Henry holds a literacy class for village children during his VISA assignment in Tanzania in 1960.
  • Young man in center of the group points to the left and speaks to group of five children working in a field.
    A VISA volunteer works with youth in Haiti in 1962. AFSC also organized camps in Finland, Poland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Jamaica, Israel, Japan, Kenya, France, and Turkey.
  • Group of young people form a circle by sitting on one the laps of one another.
    Youth from many countries engage in a “whole group sit,” building camaraderie at a Mexican work camp in 2006.
  • Man and woman work together to build a stove while a young boy looks on.
    The AFSC sponsored work camps in Mexico from 1939 until 2009. Here, campers and residents partner to build a stove in 2008.
  • Eight children laugh together in a classroom in front of a blackboard.
    In the summer of 2009, campers from around the world teach and share at the Haojiping Ethnic School in a village in Hunan Province, China.