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Peace Corps recruits older volunteers

More retirees and grandparents are finding fulfillment in serving overseas.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2007

Diane Gallagher was in her early 50s and divorced when she faced a question common to many empty-nesters: What's next?

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"My four children had graduated from college and had jobs and apartments," says Ms. Gallagher of Brookline, Mass. "It was time to give back the gifts I had received."

That desire to give back led to an adventurous choice: joining the Peace Corps at a stage when many people would consider such a step impossible. In 1990 she was assigned to the Republic of Cape Verde, 380 miles off the coast of Senegal in West Africa.

"I rented out the condo, sold the car, gave the cat to a cousin, said goodbye to my children, and got on the plane at Logan, not looking back," she says. "My son and daughter were watching me go through the gate. It was very hard, but I knew they would be OK, and I knew I would be OK. Sometimes you just have to trust."

Trust and open-mindedness are among the qualities the Peace Corps is seeking as it launches an initiative this month to attract more midlife and older volunteers like Gallagher. It is a timely push, as volunteering in America has reached an all-time high.

"It is a way to enhance and deepen and broaden what the Peace Corps is all about," says Ronald Tschetter, director. "Those who are 50-plus bring 30 to 35 years of expertise and knowledge to the opportunity to serve." He emphasizes that they are an adjunct to younger volunteers, not a replacement for them. People can go singly or as couples.

Those in this age group typically account for 5 percent of volunteers. Officials want to increase that to 10 percent in the coming year, then add another 5 percent the following year. A new website,, outlines the program.

Currently nearly 400 of the agency's 7,800 volunteers are 50 and over. The oldest is 81. Countries hosting the most older volunteers are Ukraine, South Africa, Armenia, Thailand, Romania, and the Eastern Caribbean islands. Typical assignments include education, youth outreach, community development, business development, agriculture, health, and technology.

Perhaps the most famous older volunteer was Lillian Carter, mother of President Jimmy Carter, who went to India in 1966 when she was 68.

Gallagher began giving back by helping Cape Verdean women form a sewing association and find grant money to buy fabric and thread. Old Singer sewing machines hummed as the women stitched maternity clothes. Word spread, and people from other islands came to buy.

So successful was the venture that when Gallagher returned for a visit two years later, the sewing association was still operating. "Three others had been started, along with one school," she says with obvious satisfaction.

Life was reduced to basics. She slept on a mattress made of cement bags and had no running water, no electricity, no TV. "But I had everything," she says. "I was humbled by the experience, and by the people I worked with and for, with their courage and their commitment."

Gallagher found advantages in being an older volunteer. "You get a lot more done because they respect age," she says. "They looked at my wrinkles and said, 'She's got to be very wise. She's got a lot of them.' "

Still, she does not minimize the challenges. "For an older volunteer, it's really a big commitment. You're giving up your way of life, but you're learning about another way of life."

Going through the medical exam process was "very hard," she says. She also calls the three months of in-country training "grueling," adding, "It's not a walk on the beach, it's not Club Med."

Mr. Tschetter acknowledges the challenges older applicants face in the medical clearing process. "It's very thorough," he says. "We can't compromise that."

Language presents a second challenge. Noting that the Peace Corps teaches 180 languages, he says, "We know older people can learn a language, but they learn it differently. We have to adjust our teaching style."

Then there is the complexity of older applicants' lives. "They own property, have grandchildren, and have investments and retirement portfolios," Tschetter says. "We have to give them a little more time to settle their affairs, and give them help."