When Bob Graham, 65, from Atlanta, lost his job as a sales manager in the tire industry last summer, he first tried to find a new job. Finding himself stymied, he returned to a path he had briefly considered 45 years earlier.
“I heard the Peace Corps was interested in bringing in people over the age of 50,” Graham said, “so I figured maybe I’ll go do what I wanted to do way back in 1964.”
Now, Graham is tying up loose ends and saying goodbye to friends and family. This month, he’s scheduled to leave for 27 months on the Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu as a Peace Corps volunteer, where he’ll try to help a community develop its economic opportunities.
“I’m pinching myself,” Graham said. “At 65, you know, you’re walking on a tightrope. Now I’m going someplace that’s very friendly and yet very challenging. I know it’s a place that moves at a different pace, where the culture and customs are different, but I’m up to that challenge. I’m psyched.”
A surge in boomer applications.
Credit the economic downturn, President Obama’s renewed call for national service or a demographic bulge of retiring boomers who fondly recall the spirit of President John F. Kennedy’s “ask not” call for Americans to serve their nation, not the other way around.
A big draw is the Peace Corps, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in March 2011. In 2008, applications from candidates 50-plus were are up by 44 percent over the previous year, officials say.
“We have an aging population in the U.S., and many people are looking for meaningful ways to give back,” said spokeswoman Laura Lartigue. In recent years, the Peace Corps has made greater efforts to recruit older Americans who can share their experiences with people in the developing world.
“We represent the diversity of Americans overseas,” Rosie Mauk, the Peace Corps’ associate director of volunteer recruitment and selection, said in an interview. “If 95 percent of our volunteers are all young and right out of college, they don’t really represent the diversity of Americans.” In addition, Mauk noted, many host nations are now specifically requesting Peace Corps volunteers who can offer real-world experience in technical fields, business development, agribusiness or teaching, rather than young adults freshly minted from college.
A targeted effort to entice older Americans to volunteer for Peace Corps duty actually started in mid-2007, Mauk says, but the real results of the outreach program have become dramatically obvious in the past year, as recruiters become more accustomed to working with older applicants.
“We’re looking for the life experiences these volunteers bring with them,” Mauk said, noting that in many foreign communities age induces a sort of respect that a young college graduate would not receive. Applications briefly surged by an estimated 175 percent after Obama’s inauguration and his renewal of the call for national service, she noted.
As more older Americans seek opportunities to serve abroad, the competition for spots in the Peace Corps is growing more intense. Only about one-third of all older applicants are approved for a 27-month assignment overseas. The required medical and financial screening as well as background checks can take longer than for young graduates. It can be difficult, for instance, to place older Americans in rural, underdeveloped places if they require mammograms or other advanced medical care on a regular basis, officials noted.
Only 428 of the 7,876 Americans serving as Peace Corps volunteers in the field are over 50. The oldest, at age 84, is Muriel Johnston, who works in hygiene, sanitation and disease control in Morocco. She created a blog, Muriel in Morocco, to report on her experiences, which include helping local doctors promote good health practices in schools, especially toothbrushing.
“Because of the high sugar content of the Moroccan diet,” she wrote in an e-mail message, “the kids’ teeth are affected. The doctor wants all the school children to learn proper brushing, as well as other simple health habits. We plan on presenting the first learning session in early October, giving each child a new toothbrush with instructions in the proper use. There will be, depending on the ages, programs promoting frequent hand washing, healthy diet, exercise with games and contests, and a nonsmoking campaign.”
Johnston said that she recently moved into her own apartment after living for a few months with a host family. “I have water and electricity every day, a real plus. Some sites don’t offer this. There are plenty of fresh foods of every sort available daily in the local [shops] and weekly in the souk (big market). The souk also offers almost everything you could ever want, including popcorn!”
Johnston has been in Morocco since March. “My biggest challenge is learning the Berber language dialect of Tashilheet,” she wrote. “The fun part is absorbing the culture. The big highlight was the wedding of the daughter of my host family. The party went on (the first day) until 6 a.m. The bride was presented in seven different outfits—oh you just had to be there!”
A Peace Corps future
Peace Corps activities may well expand in years to come. After the Obama administration requested an increase to $373 million in the Peace Corps budget for fiscal year 2010, the House Appropriations Committee voted to boost the budget even farther, to $450 million, though the final budget is still not approved.
Volunteers are given a housing allowance, a modest stipend for expenses and one roundtrip airfare. They are expected to live in the communities where they work.
Roger German, 58, a remodeling contractor and part-time mediator from Lincoln, Neb., started filling out his Peace Corps application in 2007. Divorced and with two children, he decided that when his youngest daughter finished college, he’d try to sign up.
“It was something I had really thought about doing in the ’70s,” German explained, but life interfered. He served six years in the National Guard in 1970 and married soon after, so serving in the Peace Corps “fell off the radar.” But his interest remained.
“The more I thought about the way we impact each other and society and other countries … it seemed like the person-to-person ambassador way was a much better way to build bridges, instead of destroying them,” German said. Besides, he said, “life has sort of knocked some of the hard edges off. As the years go by, they start going pretty fast.” He is currently in San Antonio, Belize, for training.
‘I wanted to give back’
Barbara Lences, 66, a retired chemist and patent agent living in Princeton, N.J., knew that when she stopped full-time work in October 2007, she wanted to get involved in global volunteerism.
“I was a single parent,” she explained. “It was rough raising two children alone. Next thing you know … they are independent and happy. I just felt so lucky to be so free and to be financially comfortable. I have a pension. I own my own home. I’ve never been rich, but never been exceedingly poor. I’m not going to buy a yacht, but I have so much more than I ever thought I would have.”
“It’s just me and my Lord,” she said, “and so I searched my soul and said I can do this. I wanted to give back and make a difference.”
Lences, who briefly taught science and math, is in the Northern Cape province of South Africa teaching once again.
“They always remind you of how competitive the process is, so I don’t take this for granted,” Lences said. “I’m extremely excited to have this opportunity. This is totally altruistic for me. I’m not a missionary. I just really think I have a skill set that can be useful and make a difference. And I can represent my country, too.”
As for Graham, he admits he would have preferred to work for a couple of more years before venturing off to Vanuatu, but said there are no jobs for someone over 60 in his field. “My golf game is no good. So to retire and play golf would have ended my life prematurely,” he said.
“I’m not a spring chicken, I’m pretty gray, but I felt very encouraged by my Peace Corps recruiter. It takes a long time for the paperwork to get finished, but I’m very excited about going.”
Blogging from Morocco, Johnston seems to relish her new life—except for the oppressive daytime heat. “Life here is so unique to me that I don’t have many thoughts of home. At the age of 84, I was long retired and keeping busy with volunteer work. When I heard the Peace Corps had no age limit—well, here I am.”
Michael Zielenziger is a writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay area.