Peace Corps Volunteers Idled by Pandemic Turn to Vaccinating Americans
Six older volunteers forced to return from abroad are now helping combat COVID-19 at home
En español | When President John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961 the idea was that young people right out of college would answer his call to: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Sixty years later, a small but dedicated cadre of older Americans have also become volunteers serving those in need around the world.
From Belize to Nigeria to Albania to Ghana, the work of nearly 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers in 61 countries was abruptly cut short in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the organization to evacuate all its workers in the field. Of those volunteers, 232 — 3.4 percent of the Peace Corps’ total — were age 50 or older.
While many of the evacuated volunteers are at home waiting for the suspension of overseas Peace Corps work to be lifted, some have found another way to serve. Beginning in late May, 158 volunteers have been deployed to Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey and Oregon to work with the Federal Emergency Management Administration's COVID-19 vaccine effort. Some are working in mobile vaccination centers in hard-to-reach communities. Others are reaching out to help community organizations provide information to those who have yet to get a vaccine.
This isn't the first time the Peace Corps and FEMA have teamed up for public service. In 2005, 270 volunteers responded to the call to help FEMA's relief operation along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
What many people may not know is that there is no upper age limit to joining the Peace Corps. Here are six inspiring profiles of older adults who heeded the call to serve in the Peace Corps abroad — and now at home.
Still helping at 80
He was a missionary teacher in Nigeria, a nurse in Massachusetts, a chiropractor, a senior care specialist for the state of Maine and the owner of a home health care agency. But Alexander Philiphose wasn't ready to put his feet up, even after he'd “retired” to Longboat Key, on the west coast of Florida.
"I wanted to do something different,” says Philiphose, who at 80 is the oldest Peace Corps volunteer. “I wanted to see if I could do this, learn a new language, go to a different country, a different culture."
Philiphose was posted to Zambia, a return to Africa after many decades. Born in India, he had been with a Catholic mission school in Nigeria soon after he graduated from college. While there he got to know a group of young Peace Corps volunteers. After leaving Nigeria, he got a scholarship to do graduate work at Boston College, met his wife and remained in the United States.
"I want to do whatever I can to help the rest of population. Everybody’s not safe until everybody’s vaccinated."
Asked the obvious question — wasn't he worried he couldn't cut the physical requirements of being a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Africa at his age? — Philiphose says he was a little anxious but not worried. “I still practice every day. I walked three miles this morning,” he says, a few days before he joined the FEMA COVID-19 team in New Jersey. Asked what his two children thought of their octogenarian father enlisting in the Peace Corps, Philiphose said they didn't stand in his way. “They were totally surprised, but they said, you allowed us to do what we wanted in our lives, so who are we to tell you not to do this."
Philiphose is bullish on older Americans joining the Peace Corps. “I keep telling them they ought to get more people with more experience. There are a lot of healthier 80-year-olds in America who could be helping. All of us should be helping."
While in Zambia he assisted the clinicians in a small medical clinic 65 miles from Lusaka, the country's capital. His main focus was to get more people tested and treated for HIV and help them remain compliant so they wouldn't get sick. Philiphose sees the connection between that work and helping FEMA persuade as many people as possible to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
"We did more or less the same thing in telling Zambians to go get tested so they would know whether they are positive or negative so they could get treatment,” he says. “This is a big problem in Zambia, where people don't want to know. They would rather get sick because they don't want to have this stigma associated with being positive for HIV."
Philiphose wants to do all he can to combat vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. “We know it works because more than 50 percent of the population has gotten it now,” he says. “I want to do whatever I can to help the rest of population. Everybody's not safe until everybody's vaccinated."
A dream fulfilled
Learning the ways and culture of a new and very different country is a hallmark of being a successful Peace Corps volunteer. For Vishakha Wavde, entering that world was a kind of rerun of what she experienced when in her 20s she emigrated from India to the United States.
As a young woman, Wavde answered an ad in an American newspaper seeking physical therapists. Almost three decades later the Chicago area resident can still remember what it was like to see things through the lens of a newcomer and that has made it easier for her to respect the customs and values of the people she is trying to help.
It was an experience Wavde had with a physical therapy client who had been a Peace Corps volunteer that put the notion of joining into her head. “When I met this lady and saw what she had done — giving back to a community — it hit a chord in me, and I said, Hopefully, one day I'll be able to do this. It just kind of hit a spark in my heart."
Wavde began volunteering at local food pantries, libraries, “any place that needed an extra hand.” But she kept coming back to the Peace Corps and the nagging at the back of her mind that she should go for it. Every few years she'd open the Peace Corps website but think, Now is not the year, and life would go on. “Eventually, when I was turning 50, I thought: You know, it's now or never,” Wavde says.
She applied and in 2019 became a community health adviser in Kabadula, Malawi, in southeastern Africa. She and others in her volunteer group focused on helping people learn how to prevent malaria and HIV. They would stage soccer games or other activities — like cooking demonstrations — to bring messages of healthy living and nutrition to these communities.
A year after being evacuated because of the pandemic, Wavde still gets reports from Kabadula and believes she did make a difference even though her work was cut short. “I'm told they're still continuing to do what we showed them, like using the handwashing stations we built. I hear from some of the schoolteachers that the students still remember me."
Wavde is one of the few Peace Corps volunteers who is married. She says her husband has been totally supportive, same as with her decision to join the immunization effort. So not surprisingly, she is anxious to go back to Malawi or any other country where she's needed. They might even apply as a couple.
"I just feel like Peace Corps is who I am now and going to be part of me for the rest of my life."
A cultural immersion
J. Phillip Rivers was 10 when JFK was president and was taken with Kennedy's vision for a Peace Corps.
"But things happen, life happens,” Rivers says. He never did join up, but the thought of that service was always in the back of his mind. “About three years before I was ready to retire, I started thinking about it."
After retiring as a manager with the Internal Revenue Service, Rivers, 68, who lives in Springfield, Virginia, applied to go to Ghana as a secondary education math teacher. He was particularly interested in going someplace that was “non-Western. I wanted to experience a different culture."
He was a bit apprehensive, never having taught before. “At the IRS I had done some training classes,” Rivers says. “But I haven't been a child for more than 50 years. I didn't know what kids are thinking nowadays, especially in a culture that I'm unfamiliar with. That was one of the most challenging things about teaching there."
"They would call me papa or grandpa. I think I got an added level of respect because I was older."
But the children and the elders of the village where he was sent were very welcoming, Rivers says. And curious. “The little kids liked to touch my skin,” says Rivers, who is white. “They asked me why my skin was the way it was.” The villagers also asked him about the racial strife in the United States. They wanted to know how Black people were treated.
Rivers was the oldest among the Peace Corps group that he trained with in Ghana. “Being an older person was better for me, I think, especially in Ghana. They had a reverence for elders there,” Rivers says. “They would call me papa or grandpa. I think I got an added level of respect because I was older."
He hopes he made a difference. “It's one of those things that maybe 10 years from now I might hear about one of the students who was inspired to maybe keep up their studies and continue to college,” he says. “I do feel like I accomplished one of the goals of the Peace Corps, which is to exchange cultures."
When he found out about the immunization service request, Rivers said he wanted to do it so he would know that he fulfilled his commitment to himself to serve. Rivers is working in Peoria County, Illinois, spreading the word about the importance of getting vaccinated and helping people learn where they can get their shots.
Over a weekend they went to the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex hoping to mix baseball with vaccinations. “We let people know vaccinations were being given right there,” Rivers says. He had at least one success: A mother he talked to was there with her daughter who hadn't yet been vaccinated and she was going to go over to the sports complex vaccination site. Some of his fellow volunteers have been working with local clergy to help set up vaccination clinics at their houses of worship.
"We're trying to reach those few who haven't gotten the vaccine,” Rivers says.
Determined to serve
When retired New York City schoolteacher Judith Jones first applied to the Peace Corps, she was turned down for health reasons. She had a bad back — “just like everybody else my age,” says the 60-year-old. Jones could have found another way to serve. But she wasn't ready to give up.
"I'm just that person. You tell me no and I try harder,” she says. After some research she found an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, and they gave her some advice about how to plead her case and urged her to reapply. But instead of going on a traditional two-year assignment, she was approved to be a Peace Corps Response volunteer in Belize. The Response team sends volunteers for short-term stints to countries that have very specific needs. The program was started as a crisis unit that could parachute into natural disasters and has grown to respond to immediate needs throughout the word.
Jones’ skills matched up perfectly with what Belize officials asked for. They needed help training teachers to work with children who had the most trouble learning to read. It was as if this job description was written for Jones, who had spent more than a decade of her teaching career doing literacy coaching.
"I would go to different schools every day and work with the teachers,” she says. “It was really great and rewarding work. Kids who couldn't even spell their names or recite the alphabet were reading at the end."
Looking back, Jones thinks her Belize assignment was meant to be. She had originally applied to go to Jamaica. Her close friends thought she was nuts. They knew she was a city girl at heart — “I'm not big on wildlife” — and her idea of public transportation was a New York City bus or subway. In Belize, she was able to live with a family in Belmopan, the capital, and would go to different villages to work with the teachers and students.
When Jones was asked whether she'd be willing to help with FEMA's vaccination efforts after she was evacuated, she didn't think twice.
"I'm a big supporter of everyone getting vaccinated,” Jones says. Since she's been home, she has been volunteering with a local group that has worked to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to neighbors in need. “I like to do whatever I can to help people to be healthy,” says Jones, who is working with FEMA in Oregon for the next three months helping support community vaccination centers.
Jones calls being in the Peace Corps “a pivotal experience in my life.” And she's ready to go back, maybe to Belize to continue the work she started. “The teachers there were wonderful and so dedicated. And they would try so hard. It was really great and rewarding work."
Changing his life
For 11 years, David Mayo's life followed a traditional path. He went to law school, clerked for a federal judge and practiced corporate law. But as he was busy representing individual clients and businesses, he realized that he wasn't living up to the values he and his brothers learned from their parents.
"Both of my parents were teachers, and they had a common bond, a real mission and philosophy of helping people and serving the public,” says Mayo, who lives in Spokane, Washington. “They grew up through the Depression and they saw people starve. So, the basic idea was if you take more than you need, you're harming others. And somebody who has a lot has a duty to give back."
He and his siblings have taken that credo to heart. His oldest brother served in the Navy, becoming a vice admiral, and his other brother worked for the National Transportation Safety Board.
"I’ve sacrificed making a lot of money but who cares."
In 1988 Mayo decided to quit law and spend the rest of his life as a humanitarian volunteer. He began at home, serving in VISTA and Teach for America. Then he went global and began what would be a decades-long journey with the Peace Corps and other international organizations. From Moldova to Georgia to Namibia to Cameroon, Iraq and Albania, Mayo has used his legal skills and the knowledge he gained from getting a master's degree in public health to — as he puts it — “go out and try to help people define their own paths."
"I've sacrificed making a lot of money but who cares,” Mayo says, “as long as you can fashion an identity and follow it for the rest of your life. It's been a real calling. It's been wonderful for me.” In Cameroon, for example, Mayo used his legal background to help create a juvenile justice program to help kids who had gotten in trouble get off the streets into a diversion program.
Mayo was in Albania helping local organizations get funding and manage programs for people with disabilities, disadvantaged women and impoverished students when the pandemic forced his evacuation. And at age 76 he has already applied to go back overseas once the Peace Corps begins deploying volunteers again.
When he got the Peace Corps email asking if he was interested in helping the COVID-19 vaccination efforts, “I jumped at it,” Mayo says, “because my whole interest in volunteerism is to be involved helping the public and this had all the earmarks of that — being part of a team and together we'd be doing our best to eradicate a public health emergency."
Pandemic didn't stop her
Although Elizabeth Burke was evacuated from her Peace Corps assignment after only three months in the field, she has remained connected to the people she was working with in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco — virtually.
Burke had been teaching English as a second language and was helping women establish a sewing cooperative in the mountain community. For years Burke, 56, had worked in the restaurant industry, most recently as a general manager for a high-end vegetarian restaurant in Chicago. She was going to put those foodie skills to work to create a baking cooperative, but before she got the chance it looked like the pandemic was going to nix that objective.
It didn't. “The Peace Corps started a virtual service program, a chance for us volunteers to continue our service remotely, Burke says.” Since March , Burke has gotten on regular Zoom calls and has even done some baking. It hasn't been without its challenges. Burke had to replicate in the U.S. the ingredients her new Moroccan friends had and adapt to the importance the women there place on making sure what they are baking not only tastes good but looks good as well.
"I think sometimes very young volunteers in their ‘20s have a harder time gaining the credibility that just being old gives you."
Technology has not only helped Burke while she's been waiting out the pandemic at home. Like most Peace Corps volunteers, when she was in Morocco, she had language training before being placed in her village. She was learning Darija, the Moroccan form of Arabic. But she wasn't fluent yet. To help, she combined gestures and facial expressions with Google Translate. “You kind of use everything in your toolbox that you can to communicate."
Burke hopes that once the Peace Crops starts its overseas placements again that she can return to Morocco and pick up where she left off.
Like many of the older Peace Corps volunteers, joining the Peace Corps was something she'd thought about when she was in her 20s. “I don't think you wake up at 55 or 60 and say, ‘Hey, I want to be in the Peace Corps.' ” Burke says that when she was younger, she didn't volunteer because she was worried about “missing out” on weddings and parties and other life events. But she believes her life experience and travels have all led up to this moment.
Burke sees an advantage for older Peace Corps participants. “You have more of a presence, get a kind of respect. I think sometimes very young volunteers in their 20s have a harder time gaining the credibility that just being old gives you."
Burke also sees a connection between helping underserved communities in places like Morocco and the work she's doing to help FEMA reach underserved communities in New Jersey. “FEMA's mission and the Peace Corps mission are pretty well aligned,” she says. “They're just trying to work together to help people."
Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the Medicare Made Easy column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.