Peace Corps actively seeking, encouraging older volunteers

October 01, 2006|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,THE HARTFORD COURANT

Forty years ago, when Lillian Carter applied to the Peace Corps, the idea of a 67-year-old woman's volunteering to serve as a public health worker in India was so unusual, the sexagenarian had to have her head examined before being accepted.

The Corps requested she undergo a psychiatric evaluation. The mother of President Jimmy Carter passed the assessment and went on to become one of the Peace Corps' most famous senior volunteers.

After her death in 1983, the organization established an award in her name to recognize volunteers 50 and over for outstanding service.

The current pool of possible recipients for that honor might surprise even Miss Lillian, as she was known. These days, hundreds of volunteers in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s serve as Peace Corps volunteers in 75 countries.

"That image of the `typical' young, just-out-of-college Peace Corps volunteer has changed," says Gretchen Learman, spokeswoman for the Peace Corps. "Age is no barrier to joining the Peace Corps. In many cases, it's an asset, since senior volunteers bring so much expertise and so much knowledge to their work."

When the Peace Corps began in 1961, fewer than 1 percent of volunteers were over age 50. Today, that figure has increased to 6 percent -- and the Peace Corps hopes even greater numbers of older Americans will consider making the 27-month commitment to serve.

To accomplish that goal, the Corps has developed special marketing materials geared toward the 50-plus audience. Brochures include the faces of mature volunteers. Staffers in a number of recruiting offices are themselves former older volunteers. The Corps sends representatives to AARP conventions and does outreach to the Retired Teachers Association.

Learman says the Peace Corps does its best to address medical and financial concerns that older volunteers might have.

"We recognize that older volunteers might have special needs and try to accommodate them when we can," says Learman. "For example, we might post a senior volunteer to an area with medical facilities nearby."

While serving, all volunteers receive medical and dental coverage, vacation time and transportation to and from their host country.

If a volunteer becomes seriously ill, the Corps provides transportation to the closest American-standard medical facility in the region or to the U.S. In most cases, Peace Corps service won't affect a retiree's Social Security benefits, civil service or military service pension. (Volunteers receive small living and readjustment allowances.)

Older volunteers include married couples such as Tom and Judith Hogan. In 2003, the couple from Litchfield, Conn., who are in their 60s, put their careers on hold to spend two years in Ukraine teaching English to high school and college students.

"We kept talking about it and investigating the next step and finally made the decision to go for it," says Judith Hogan. "I'm sure a lot of our friends thought we'd lost our minds. It wasn't easy and it isn't the right choice for everyone, but we found it to be an incredibly rewarding experience. It gave us a whole new perspective of the world."

Information on volunteering opportunities is available at peacecorps.gov; getinvolved.gov and nationalservice.gov.

Korky Vann writes for The Hartford Courant.

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