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Seniors doing their peace

This article by Julie Gilgoff was originally published in Newsday on February 26, 2005.

About three years ago, Irene Porges owned a health advocacy business called Claims Made Easy. She relished the gourmet shops of her Brooklyn neighborhood and valued having family and friends nearby.

But Porges had a dream not yet fulfilled: living and working in a foreign country. So at age 62, Porges decided to leave the comforts of her brownstone apartment in Prospect Heights and joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Bulgaria.

Porges is among a small but growing number of seniors joining an organization once focused almost exclusively on attracting America's youth. A year before the Peace Corps was created in 1961, President John F. Kennedy had made a speech challenging college students to "serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries."

Now, the Peace Corps is actively reaching out to seniors.

"Older people bring skills and life experience to the foreign country they serve, where many times age is respected," says Edwin Jorge, the Peace Corps' New York regional manager.

A senior surge

For years, volunteers over age 50 represented just 1 percent of the Peace Corps' ranks. But in recent years, the number of 50-plus volunteers has jumped to 6 percent of the total of 7,733 members.

Bryan Richardson, membership coordinator for The Returned Peace Corps Volunteers group of Long Island, says that older adults nowadays increasingly seek out opportunities to travel to exotic destinations, and are drawn to options like the Peace Corps.

Now 60 and working at the Hempstead Health and Welfare Council as coordinator of local disaster-relief organizations, Richardson recalled that as a 22- year-old Peace Corps volunteer in South Korea, right out of college, "I didn't have any training or experience, one of the advantages of serving when you're older."

Richardson now helps to plan local events for his group's members, who are among the more than 900 Long Islanders who have served in the Peace Corps (almost 4,500 New York City residents also have served). He believes the number of volunteers, young and old, will continue to grow.

AARP runs ads

Two years ago, Peace Corps director of communications Ellen Field turned to AARP to help recruit older volunteers. After meeting with Field, AARP director of outreach and service Barb Quaintance says, the organization decided to run Peace Corps ads in AARP The Magazine as public service announcements, beginning last fall.

Serving in the Peace Corps may be an ideal option for baby boomers who aren't satisfied with "traditional volunteer roles" and seek the "spirit of adventure" that prevails in the Corps, Quaintance said.

Porges learned about the Peace Corps from the organization's Web site (www.peace corps.org). She applied, was accepted and was thrilled to be given the opportunity to live out her dream in Bulgaria, she said.

But in her first year of service (the traditional stint lasts two years, plus three months of training), Porges experienced frequent bouts of homesickness and considered leaving early. As a foreign woman living alone in Teteven, a mountain community of about 10,000 people, she felt she was going against local customs just by doing her job as a community economic development volunteer.

"If you're over age 60 in the community where I lived, you're sent out to pasture," she recalled. "You don't work."

Over time, however, Porges said she got to know the other female professionals in town, who provided her with critical peer support. One like-minded senior, a Bulgarian attorney named Pepa Konenchanska, became her companion on hikes through the mountains and vacations to other European countries. During her hardest moments, when she wanted to return home, Porges would book a ticket to go traveling with her friend.

During her stay, Porges created a business centld book a ticket to go traveling with her friend.

During her stay, Porges created a business center where she helped train local artisans to market their goods. She is now thinking of opening a business in the United States to import Bulgarian products such as blankets and rugs.

Volunteers must learn to adjust to living in remote locations, but Porges credits the Peace Corps with providing high-quality medical care. "The physicians that the Peace Corps provided were there for us 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she said. Most situations could be attended to through a centralized medical staff in the capital city, Sofia, where Porges went when she experienced neck aches. The Peace Corps paid for her physical therapy as well as lodging in a hotel for about a week.

Can't be picky

Volunteers are required to undergo thorough medical screening before entering the Peace Corps and are assigned to a country where their needs can be met. Although the Peace Corps allows for those health requirements and will take geographic preferences into account, it doesn't let a volunteer (or married couple) actually choose a country. Porges, for example, told local recruiters that she couldn't cope with hot climates, so they placed her in Eastern Europe.

Glen Dunbar, however, is one volunteer who deals with the heat daily, walking through the mountains of Nicaragua to serve at a rural health post.

"There are few volunteers my age, but my young colleagues have helped me reconnect with the sparks of my youth," said Dunbar, 57, of Hershey, Pa. "I have great respect for them."

He does, however, feel that his age and slight loss of hearing put him at a disadvantage in mastering a new language. Dunbar said he needed extra tutoring to learn Spanish well enough to communicate with Nicaraguans, the kind of help anyone with language difficulties gets.

Overall, the Peace Corps treats all volunteers the same, offering modest living and travel allowances each month. Dunbar, who lives near three other volunteers in the city of Boaco, said his "additional years" haven't cut him special breaks from the organization - and that's the way he likes it.

"Sometimes, my younger colleagues ask me if I have always wanted to be in the Peace Corps, but I had other priorities," Dunbar said. "I graduated from high school in 1965 and went into the Air Force to do my duty." Dunbar worked as director of the Policy Office for Aging in the Pennsylvania Department of Aging for 10 years before deciding to serve his country again, this time as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Experience counts

Many young volunteers say they appreciate being able to work side by side with older colleagues.

For example, Shawn Green, 26, of North Bellmore, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, said the four older colleagues in his group of 36 education and community outreach volunteers served as models for the younger volunteers because of their life experiences.

About three years ago, Green received his pre-service training with 62-year-old Joy Jones, the two bonding over their initial cultural shock and the challenge of learning the Thai language and customs.

Jones was a law school student in Irvine, Calif. when she accepted her position as a Peace Corps volunteer. She had to leave Thailand several months before her two-year commitment was up when she learned her mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It was difficult to leave her community in Thailand, Jones said, but she knew she made the right decision when she arrived home to find that her mother still recognized her.

"I got to come home to her smiling face … instead of coming home nine months later to her funeral," Jones said, adding that her mother died a month before she would have completed her full commitment. "That time made all the difference in the world to me."

Because of her experience, she advises that before making a commitment to go overseas, older volu
Because of her experience, she advises that before making a commitment to go overseas, older volunteers should consider that "oftentimes, their parents may still be alive, but in poor health."

Still, Jones has no regrets. She keeps in touch with friends from her Thai community and says she gained a lot from her experience.

"My mother was one of the greatest people in the world, and she always told me to follow my heart," Jones recalled. "'If it doesn't work out, you can always come back,' she would say to me. That's exactly what I did."

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