Oldest Peace Corps Volunteer, 83, Teaches Respect – In Any Language
(Editor’s Note: Bruce Frankel was interviewed about Volunteering after the age of 50 on “Circles of Change” a radio show on 101.4 FM in Tucson Arizona. To hear the full podcast, in which he discusses Peace Corps Volunteer Emily Dewhirst, and the Peace Corps in general, please click here.)
As the oldest Peace Corps volunteer in service, Emily Dewhirst of Knoxville, Tenn., couldn’t imagine of a better way to celebrate her 83rd birthday this week than as she did — serving her third assignment as a Peace Corps Response volunteer in Baltz, Moldova.
“I’m using my talents where they are needed and wanted. People look at me and appreciate the expertise and experience I bring,” says Dewhirst, whose latest assignment is improving English language education for teachers and students.
Chatting via Skype on Nov. 12, the day before her birthday, she laughed ruefully when I asked how her experience as a working older adult in the Eastern European countries where she has served compared with the experience of age at home, in the U.S.
“Age is revered in these countries,” she says. “They treat me like gold here.”
“At home, I’m likely to get elbowed by the young. Here, they bow. They believe I can share meaningful ways of doing things,” she says. “It’s great. I love teaching.”
Dewhirst is hardly alone as an older Peace Corps volunteer. Today, more than 7 percent of the corps’ 8,073 volunteers are 50 and older. They serve in 61 posts worldwide. More than 40 are aged 70 and over.
Volunteers often say they are motivated by the rewards of public service, cultural exchange and sacrifice — the same values that have motivated Peace Corps volunteers since President John F. Kennedy established the organization to promote world peace and friendship in 1961.
The Peace Corps Response Program is uniquely suited for her, Dewhirst says. Its assignments are high-impact and short-term, lasting between three months and one year, though they can be extended if necessary. “Id rather be working than doing anything else,” she says.
There are other benefits beyond allowing Dewhirst to realize her full potential at work in her 80s. The travel for the Peace Corps has helped her continue to fulfill her lifelong itch to travel.
It began when she was a young woman, in Minneapolis, MN. When her father, a Plymouth-Chrysler car dealer, told her, “Know what you really want in life ... and go do it,” she did.
She studied French at the Sorbonne, in Paris, bicycled across Europe, and worked as a stewardess for Pan American World Airways in the 1950s, flying routes to Europe and Africa. She also indulged her passion for riding camels. Then she married an FBI agent and began raising four children.
She taught French in various towns for more than 30 years as she was pulled along by her husband’s itinerant career. They settled in Tennesee in the 1970s. The marriage ended in 1993. “And as soon as it did,” she says, “I took off again.”
Not, however, for aimless travel.
At 63, in 1994, Dewhirst was launched on her first Peace Corps assignment. She served in Kazakhstan for two years, teaching English and working with English teachers to improve and modernize their skills. Conditions there, shortly after the end of the Soviet Union, were difficult. Food was scarce. Her accommodations were rough, without central heating or a bathroom. But she was in heaven.
“I worked 12-14 hour days, and I loved everything about it. It was the most meaningful time of my entire life. It was a wonderful time of sharing,” she recalls. “I am still the best of friends with the people I worked with.”
After she finished that assignment, she spent periods of time teaching English in South Korea and Bolivia (not for the Peace Corps). Her return to the corps in 2010 was something of a miracle.
In 2000, she had returned to Knoxville and bought an old warehouse on Market Square that she planned to renovated into her home. The day before demolition rafters, she fell through its rafters and down 18 feet onto a concrete floor. She was practically given up for dead.
Lying unconscious on the ground, the paramedics who responded thought she looked homeless. Does she know how to read or write, they asked her son, David, a Knoxville developer. “In five languages,” he said. When the doctors told him that if she survived, she would never walk again, he said, “You don’t know my mother.”
Indeed, Emily Dewhirst is nothing if not determined and adventurous.
At 79, using eHarmony online dating, she met Carlos Luria, a lecturer, writer and former CIA agent. The pair began sharing their lives, spending part of the year in Knoxville and part at Luria’s home in South Carolina. Two years later, in 2010, when she received an offer from the Peace Corps to help English teachers in Armenia, Luria persuaded her to take it.
She was exhilarated by her work there with the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) and by writing a curriculum for teaching English now widely used in Armenia.
Dewhirst, who left for her current assignment in October, says her work in Moldova has been challenging because the old Soviet education style — characterized by memorization, inflexibility, and lack of curiosity — still dominates education and because ethnic groups, including Romanians, Russians, Turks and a sizable gypsy population have competing interests.
She encourages older Americans to consider a role in the Peace Corps, where they can use past experience — that young volunteers can’t match — in health, education, ecology or business. “There are all kinds of jobs,” she says, and the Peace Corps trains its volunteers before sending them abroad.
Of course, The Peace Corps — with its motto, “The toughest job you’ll ever love” — isn’t for everyone, especially in later life. “It’s great if you really and truly want to do something and see the world. If not, don’t do it. It takes gumption,” Dewhirst says, who has little patience for those who give in to idle lives. “I think it’s a crime to waste half your life, sitting around.”
When she leaves Moldova, she plans to return to Knoxville and life with Carlos. She believes it will be her last trip for the Peace Corps. But then again, she says, “If I get the itch, I’ve got to go someplace.”
* More information about the Peace Corps can be found at http://www.peacecorps.gov. Its toll-free recruitment number is 855-855-1916