Goodwill AmbassadorsThis article by Bob Young was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on July 20, 2005.
They may not fit the typical Peace Corps profile, but Los Angeles County-based Marilyn Wheeler and George Neykov are among the 456 volunteers age 50 and up who are currently abroad, working and spreading goodwill in developing nation. Its only logical, they both agree, that those with the most experience and often the most free time would want to share it with those in need.
Besides, it can be the adventure of a lifetime a wonderful opportunity to enrich lifes second half, said Wheeler. Those 50 and older represent nearly 7% of more than 7000 total Peace Corps volunteers placed worldwide, from Africa, to Mexico, Eastern Europe to Indonesia.
Often they bring career experience and special talents to developing communities. Neykov teaches photography and spreads his love of cinema in remote Bulgarian communities, while Wheeler draws on her consultant career to help organize educational programs in Macedonia.
Since its inception in 1961, more than 165,000 volunteers have served in the Peace Corps, working in such diverse fields as agriculture, health and information technology. Its a tradition that has been strengthened recently by actively recruiting seniors, said Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez.
The Peace Corps presents a unique opportunity for older Americans to make a tremendous impact by contributing a lifetime of experience and wisdom, Vasquez said. Ive heard people over 50 say that they wish that had joined the Peace Corps when they were young enough. The truth is that they probably have more to offer now.
After running her own consulting and seminar business for 15 years, Wheeler decided to take a step back and realize a longtime dream of joining the Peace Corps. The divorced 61-year-old grandmother and author of problem People at Work: The Essential Survival Guide she felt she had reached a point in her life when she could finally take time to volunteer.
At 60, I found myself at a crossroad in my life, says the Sherman oaks resident.
Learning to play golf or just relaxing on the patio would not support me and, regardless, retirement is not my style. The Peace Corps seemed to fulfill all my needs: helping others, adventure, basic living expenses [and] healthcare covered and the opportunity to do something that is unique, especially at my age.
While completing Peace Corps training, Wheeler found herself living with a family and Macedonia, working in Non-Governmental Operations, helping coordinate environmental and health projects, including a national campaign to raise the awareness of the benefits of early cancer detection.
Wheelers tour of duty, which ends in December, 2006, has been rewarding as well as challenging. She has visited 17 countries and lived in London for a year, but nothing could have prepared her for life in Macedonia.
My first three months of living here, I was living in a small village that looked like it came right out of National Geographic, she said. The lifestyle is very different to ours the food, work ethics, language, family traditions and life in general. The Peace Corps training is rigorous, and having the support of my host family made it all doable.
It takes about a year to become adjusted to living in the Third World country, Wheeler said, and about one to two years to re-adjust after coming back home. When she returns she anticipates being overwhelmed with the crush of sound, traffic and modern conveniences.
However, the rewards outweigh the difficulties.
With perseverance and patience, who knows what spark, might be ignited in the life of another, she said.
When Neykov joined the Peace Corps in 2003 and landed in Bulgaria, he wasnt venturing to an exotic locale he was returning to the land of his birth. After settling in Los t venturing to an exotic locale he was returning to the land of his birth. After settling in Los Angeles in 1989 with his wife and daughter, Neykov, now 50, launched a successful career as an art photographer, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen and opening an art gallery, The Image Room, in Los Angeles.
He signed on to the Peace Corps to share some of his American experience with his former compatriots.
Through the corps Community Economic Development Program, Neykov has led workshops in art management and created the successful Traveling Village Cinema Project, bringing classic films to isolated locales free of charge. His first screening was in a remote village with a population of 300. The villagers hadnt seen a movie since 1985.
I showed two [Frederico] Fillini films, 8 _ and Roma, he said. The atmosphere was totally surreal. People from a village with one paved street more of them have never traveled more than 100 miles from home were mesmerized by moving images of a world apart, yet so close to them.
Joining the Peace Corps
Are you interested in joining the Peace Corps? If so, the following are some requirements:
Training: After a two-day training in Washington, DC, volunteers are flown to their host countries and given 8-12 weeks of intensive training in the native language, culture, traditions and values.
Time-Commitment: A 27-month tour of duty is required. Vacation time is accrued at a rate of 2 days per month.
What is provided: The Peace Corps provides housing, usually with host families. A monthly stipend of between $200 and $600 is paid. A variable readjustment payment is given once the volunteer is back home. The amount is influenced by such factors as how difficult the volunteers assignment was. The payment is meant to help with expenses as the volunteer readjusts to being back home.
A thorough physical is given before assignment. Health care is fully for by the corps. If a volunteer falls sick and proper treatment isnt available nearby, paid he or she will be sent to a location that can provide it.
Possible locations: Peace Corps volunteers are serving in 72 developing countries. Volunteers may designate preferences, but the organization ultimately places them in situations and locations that match their skills, physical conditions, and life needs. Married couples can be placed together.
Safety Issues: Each location is fully assessed for health and safety issues before volunteers are allowed to go, Vasquez said. The Peace Corps is especially careful about making sure proper medical care is nearby. Typically, volunteers are sent to places where locals are grateful and happy to see them.
Skills Needed: theres an increasing aid for volunteers with information-technology and small business skills.
However, the Peace Corps is mostly in need of educators, said Vasquez.
We never have nearly enough teachers, he said.
They can contribute in so many ways; not only teaching English, but science, small business, and so much more.
While the Peace Corps loves getting credentialed teachers, anyone with an expertise in a certain area is allowed to teach.