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Over-50 brigade plays an ever-growing role in the Peace Corps

Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) -- When Lillian Carter, mother of a president-to-be, joined the Peace Corps in 1966 at age 68, she was an aberration. The Peace Corps of that era was a youthful enterprise; only 1 percent of its volunteers were over 50.

To the corps' delight, times have changed. Ten percent of its recruits these days are over 50, ranging from executives weary of corporate careers to retirees seeking altruistic adventure.

''We want the Peace Corps to show the face of America, and age is one aspect of diversity,'' said Lauren Mitchell, recruitment coordinator at the agency's Denver office. ''Older people make fantastic volunteers -- they bring a lot of expertise, maturity and life experience.''

Like other applicants, senior citizens must pass thorough medical exams. Some of them wonder if Peace Corps service might be too rigorous, but Mitchell said options are increasing for volunteers unsuited to manual labor.

''They may still think of it as being on your hands and knees out in the fields,'' Mitchell said. ''But now we do a lot of business advising, teaching with computers.''

Older volunteers are slightly more likely than younger colleagues to cut short their 27-month overseas assignments because of health problems, and they tend to have more trouble learning new languages, Mitchell said.

But overall, the older volunteers are considered an invaluable asset.

''Younger volunteers in the same group really depend on them a lot of for guidance,'' Mitchell said.

In the 1960s, the Peace Corps' inaugural decade, only 5 percent of the volunteers were 30 or older. In the latest batch of recruits, 28 percent were at least 30.

''A lot of today's senior volunteers had just started families when the Peace Corps began and didn't have the opportunity to join,'' Mitchell said. ''Now their kids are out of the house, they're healthy and financially stable. They say, 'I wanted to do this when I was 20, when Kennedy was president. I couldn't do it then. Now I can.'''

Lillian Carter, who died in 1983, served as a Peace Corps nurse in India for two years. Her letters home told of homesickness, cultural adjustments and a steadily increasing joy in her work.

The Peace Corps' Atlanta office has established an award in her honor, given every five years to an over-50 volunteer for distinguished community service. Her son, former President Jimmy Carter, presented the 2001 award at a ceremony in May to Abbott Williams, 69, of Birmingham, Ala., who started a Peace Corps stint in Swaziland when he was 51.

The Peace Corps is not alone in enjoying a surge of older volunteers. Its domestic counterpart, AmeriCorps, hopes to expand senior programs that now encompass 500,000 volunteers. In Colorado, 91-year-old volunteer Margaret Garcia reports every Tuesday to the Denver Rescue Mission to help serve lunches to the poor and homeless.

Danilo Minnick, a Peace Corps recruiter in New York City, signed up one of the agency's oldest current volunteers, 80-year-old Mercedes Anderson. She is posted in Bolivia, working with blind and autistic children.

''I was struck by her right from the beginning. She had such a passion to help other people,'' Minnick said. ''It was just a question of finding where she would be matched with a program.''

Smaller than in the '60s, today's Peace Corps has roughly 7,000 volunteers serving in 76 countries. Most older volunteers are suited for assignments in any of those nations, though they might be steered away from isolated locales such as a South Pacific island, Minnick said.

Specific work assignments generally are made after a volunteer reaches the overseas country. Minnick said Peace Corps leaders on the scene might divert a senior volunteer from a posting that required heavy labor or mountain hiking.

''In many of these countries, being an older person can have advantages,'' Minnick said. ''The people respect age. They revere maturity.''

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On the Net:

http://www.peacecorps.gov

End Adv for Thursday, June 14, and thereafter



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