Peace Corps volunteer services provide opportunities, satisfaction

Loret Miller Ruppe wants to see more Americans going abroad - especially if they know how to teach mathematics, run a business, or build a dam. As director of the Peace Corps, Mrs. Ruppe is on a campaign to let more of her fellow citizens - young and old - know about the opportunities and satisfaction volunteer service overseas can provide.

Merged for more than a decade into the domestic ACTION program, the Peace Corps has suffered a drop in the number of both volunteers and programs since the years after its highly visible birth during the Kennedy administration in 1961.

Lumped together with other programs with different goals, ''the Peace Corps got lost,'' Mrs. Ruppe says. ''We need our own public awareness. It's critical to us to have Americans thinking of us'' as a distinct way to render public service. So last year Congress separated the corps from ACTION, and boosted Peace Corps funding - even as it was taking an axe to most federal programs.

Standing on its own again, the organization is already reaping benefits, Mrs. Ruppe says. Today the corps has some 5,200 volunteers serving in 64 countries. ''We're being asked back into countries we have left,'' she says. ''And there is interest from new countries. For instance, we went into Burundi this past year. And we went into Haiti.''

Fewer job opportunities for recent college graduates and a stepped-up recruiting campaign have meant new success in finding qualified candidates, the corps director says. For years the corps had written off recruiting at prestigious technical schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Recently, however, the corps has lined up ''nine potential serious applicants'' from MIT alone.

''Our push in the '80s really is agriculture (increasing food production), renewable energy sources, and income generation (small business, marketing, and accounting skills),'' she says. The need now is for volunteers with scarce skills. ''Virtually every country we're in would like us to send more people, particularly in agriculture and math and science teachers,'' she says.

The corps hopes to tap more older Americans whose practical experience in their careers makes them valued recruits. ''We're very eager that more of them think about this type of service. It's very refreshing to talk to senior Americans. When they realize they have an opportunity to serve with Peace Corps, the interest is intense. They really are glad to hear it. I think we'll see a real surge in the future as we get our message out more and more.''

Mrs. Ruppe, who also is asking businesses to put in a word for the Peace Corps in their preretirement-counseling programs, says more than 300 volunteers over age 50 are already serving. ''The countries in which our volunteers serve recognize and respect the experience of life,'' she says, ''as opposed to our own culture, which places little value, it seems, on age.'' For that reason, she says, ''Our older volunteers have an automatic acceptance, while our younger volunteers have to do more to earn it.''

Two challenges for some older volunteers, she notes, are health problems and learning languages. But even though many are placed in cities, which tend to have more amenities, ''some are in some pretty remote areas,'' living in primitive conditions.

''We have an 87- and 84-year-old couple in Detroit who have served once and have just been nominated to serve again. When they applied about one and a half years ago, I was told they were accepted, but they said they were much too busy at that point to join. I thought, ''Now that's the kind of (older) American we're looking for!''

Another vital component in helping developing countries is women, who now make up 46 percent of Peace Corps volunteers. Although many are serving in more traditional teaching or nursing positions, others are experts on such subjects as agriculture or fisheries. One woman serving in Morocco is training women to become welders.

Fifteen percent of the corps volunteers are married couples serving together, although children cannot yet be accommodated. The only caveat is that ''they both need to have a skill, and we need to find a place where they both can use their skills,'' says Mrs. Ruppe, who is married to former Michigan Congressman Philip Ruppe and is the mother of five daughters.

Opportunities in the corps extend to those with physical handicaps, too. In Ecuador, a blind volunteer organized a Special Olympics program for that country. In the Philippines, deaf volunteers teach deaf children. ''You have no idea what a role model it is for a handicapped American to come to a country,'' Mrs. Ruppe says. ''In most countries we've been in, Peace Corps has led the way in introducing the concept of special education.''

Crayfish ranching, solar grain drying, and a number of other ''appropriate technologies'' are among the 3,006 projects the corps is involved in this year. ''We had 4,000 solid requests, but that was all we could afford on our budget,'' Mrs. Ruppe says.

In the spirit of the Reagan administration, the corps is working to increase its effort by soliciting help from private business. ''We can show them through our track record just how cost effective we are,'' the director says.

''Peace Corps is considered by our ambassadors one of the most positive American presences overseas,'' she adds. The message she wants to bring to the country is that ''there is a US program that people (overseas) are grateful for. Americans are always told that nobody cares, that nobody likes us. . . . Here is a program that is a proven success story for generating appreciation.

''When I went to Jamaica this summer, Prime Minister [Edward] Seaga insisted on getting up from his sick bed to see me and thank me for Peace Corps. The newspapers there had supplements thanking America for Peace Corps. Now, what other program has generated support like that?''

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