To mark the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, the Oregon Historical Society will open an exhibit this week commemorating the organization's volunteers.

With 246 Oregonians currently serving, the state ranks fourth among the states for Peace Corps volunteers per capita.

The OHS exhibit will feature artifacts, oral histories and photography from former volunteers living in Oregon. Those Peace Corps veterans say the organization remains important 50 years after President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the international service and cultural exchange organization.

Cathy Rothenberger, 43, served in Belize in the early 1990s, implementing business programs for youth. She helped junior high school students run businesses for a semesterselling Easter baskets in the spring, for example, or manufacturing t-shirts.

"When people think of Belize, they say, 'oh, how wonderful, did you go scuba diving all the time?'" Rothenberger said. "But Belize is much more than the scuba diving, much more than the coral reefs."

The years in Belize also set Rothenberger on a professional path in international economic development. She has since worked in Nepal, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Eritrea, Kosovo and Lebanon, and has been in Portland since 2009 as the director of recruitment and retention for Mercy Corps, the Portland-based relief and development organization.

Jeremy Barnicle, a 38-year-Portlander, worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small coal-mining city in western Hungary in the mid-1990s. (Thanks to this industrial activity, Barnicle would leave his home in the morning and find a fine layer of coal dust covering all the cars in his neighborhood.) His primary post was as an English teacher at a high school. But his work with Bosnian refugees proved the most transformative. Barnicle recalled spending his first Christmas in Hungary at a refugee camp and going out drinking with young Bosnian Muslims (they weren't "particularly observant," Barnicle said).

"These were white, European, university-educated, English-speaking guys, and I was out drinking with them, just like I could be with anyone," Barnicle said. "And they were talking about how their families had been killed, their sisters had been raped, their schoolmates who were Serb and turned against them, and it just blew me away. It made me feel like there's not that big of a difference between the basics of their situation and mine. It helped me get some perspective."

In addition to this raw exposure to the Balkan conflicts, Barnicle also accumulated some funny memories. There was the Hungarian girl who worked at the local bakery and one day professed her love for him.

"She said, 'I can't eat, I can't sleep, I'm in love with you,'" Barnicle said. "She was super sweet, but I was like, what am I supposed to do here? I think I lied and told her I had a girlfriend."

And then there was the pig killing in a colleague's rural hometown, where villagers referred to Barnicle as "Jennifer" ("that's a really typical American name," he said, "and the fact that it's a woman name's wasn't really registering") and announced they were saving the pig's tail for him, the honored visitor.

"People who do something like Peace Corps are generally really committed to being open-minded about cultural stuff, so the last thing I wanted to do was turn this down," Barnicle said. "But the whole day I'm thinking, oh crap, when does the point come where I have to eat the tail? And at the end of the day, it turned out they were pulling my leg. No one actually eats the tail. It's one part of the pig that's not consumed."

Barnicle's service helped set a professional arc, including a stint as a press officer for the State Department in Bosnia. He now works as Mercy Corps' chief development and communications officer.

"The Peace Corps experience really lit the fuse for me," he said.