Volunteers give the Peace Corps a chance

The Peace Corps turns 40 this month, as older volunteers join the ranks in S. Africa.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In this small town at the edge of the Kruger National Park, Mary Jo Reimer, a small woman with short-cropped white hair, is addressed with the honorary term "gogo," or grandmother. It is a sign of respect for the Californian, and an honorific that an increasing number of Peace Corps volunteers can claim.

Three months ago, Ms. Reimer abandoned her comfortable life as a hospice nurse in Los Angeles to spend two years as a Peace Corps volunteer at a home for street children and HIV-positive orphans in South Africa. Her mission is to turn Peace Haven, founded by a woman who 10 years ago opened her door to children in need, into a financially viable nongovernmental organization.

"I'm not 23, I'm not a vegetarian, and I don't wear Birkenstocks," Reimer says with a laugh. "But I think I bring experience that will help do my job here."

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As the Peace Corps celebrates its 40th birthday this year, the stereotypical left-leaning, 20-something idealist who defined the corps for many years is giving way to a new type of volunteer: retired professionals like Reimer, and middle-aged, mid-career individuals who want a break from life in the fast lane.

These older volunteers, a few of whom are in their 80s, bring a whole new set of skills and attitudes to the corps, and are changing the kind of work it does. Their involvement is making possible programs, like Reimer's, that help build local institutions. One former nurse volunteering in Malawi, for example, is helping to build the country's first hospice.

When President John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps in 1961, most of those who answered his call were idealistic young college graduates. During the first decade of the organization's existence, 95 percent of the more than 54,000 people who served were in their 20s, and most of those were sent as teachers. Back then, only a handful of retirees - fewer than 1 percent of all volunteers, signed on.

Today, about 10 percent of volunteers are over 50. Another 15 percent are in their 30s and 40s. Also, bucking the mainly liberal stereotype of corps volunteers, many older volunteers are politically conservative Republican professionals, corps administrators say.

"We're seeing a generation of people who remembered Kennedy starting the Peace Corps, but were starting families or careers at the time," says Yvonne Hubbard, country director of the Peace Corps in South Africa, where the average age of volunteers is 47. "I've had a couple of volunteers come to me and say they had wanted to volunteer at the time, but had a baby on their hip. Now they have the opportunity to do it."

The direction of the Peace Corps in South Africa may be a good indication of where the organization is heading. While the country currently hosts a disproportionate number - almost half - of older volunteers - compared with other countries, Ms. Hubbard says that is largely because the types of projects being conducted here require the skills of experienced professionals.

Reimer, for example, who has background both in AIDS nursing and in accounting, was considered a perfect fit for her new job. She is part of a pilot program that is working to help make small AIDS Non Government Organizations (NGOs) - many of which were founded by people with little or no experience running such organizations - into sustainable projects.

When Reimer and others in her program depart two years from now, they hope to leave behind an administrative foundation to make their organizations financially solvent.

Edith Harrington, the deputy director of health in Mpumalanga Province, where an AIDS project is running , said the new corps program is important because it is helping the government provide better, more cost-effective health services through community-based organizations.

"The AIDS epidemic is starting to really strain our capacity. We cannot cope with the patient load in the hospitals and, as long as people can be taken care of in the community, that's what we would like to see happen," she said. "The Peace Corps is helping to make sustainable the kinds of organizations that can provide these services."

Hubbard, however, says programs like the Mpumalanga AIDS project are made possible largely because of older volunteers with years of professional experience - such as Reimer - who bring with them management and other much-needed skills. She adds that community members are often more receptive to elders, who are accorded respect in South African society.

Ed Oshira is a two-time Peace Corps volunteer. In 1963, he spent two years in Ghana, teaching science and health classes in a high school as part of the second class of Peace Corps volunteers. This year, after his recent retirement, Mr. Oshira returned to the corps to serve in the same program as Reimer, in part because he felt that this time he had more to offer.

"Back when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the very beginning, Kennedy was still president, and it was a heady time. We felt that we were always being watched and that we had to prove that it worked," he said. "There was a real sense of dedication and sacrifice. Now, they're more realistic. They want skills, not just enthusiastic people."

"One reason I'm here is that I don't think I was a very good volunteer when I was 22 years old. I was too impatient. I wasn't very sensitive."

For people like Oshira and Reimer, serving a Peace Corps stint, being a gogo volunteer, is a chance to stay active and give something to the community.

While Reimer misses freshly squeezed orange juice and sometimes even her car, she says the experience has given her a new attitude about life. "I enjoy simple things, like a flush toilet," she says. "Would you ever think of that as a luxury?"

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