Peace Corps Targets Baby Boomers

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on June 29, 2008
Courtesy of Peace Corps Peace Corps Executive Director Ron Tshetter in Malawi

Lea Nation, 61, jumps up from the kitchen table in her Chattanooga, Tenn., home, and returns with a handful of brightly colored fabric place mats. She plucks one from the stack and smoothes it with her palm.

"The women in Morocco have incredible skills for weaving," says Nation, who, as a Peace Corps volunteer, helped a cooperative of women in the town of Azilah market the place mats to tourists, starting in 2000. "They made $3 in profit for each one, which doesn't sound like much, but these were women who had no way of making any money. Three dollars would buy them vegetables for a week."

Nation is one of a growing number of boomer-age volunteers who are channeling a lifetime of experience into helping others through the Peace Corps. Many teach or provide medical care, while others share valuable business skills.

Like many who were inspired by President John F. Kennedy's famous 1961 call to action ""Ask not what your country can do for you "ask what you can do for your country" "Nation considered joining the Peace Corps in the 1960s, but instead got married and ran a company that manufactured products for the sail-making industry.

In 2000, when her youngest son left for college, the then-divorced 53-year-old Nation sold her house and business and signed up for a stint in Zimbabwe, where for six months she helped women plant trees, before being evacuated because of political instability. She was then assigned to Azilah in Morocco, where she taught local women how to turn their weaving talents into a profitable enterprise.

A few months later, Nation launched another co-op, this time in the southern Moroccan town of Sidi Ifni. She points to a photo of herself, with seven other women, holding up a sheer, tie-dyed wrap in shades of chocolate, lime green and navy. "I knew nothing about making garments," she says. "But when I saw this fabric, I said, 'Oh, we've got to do something with that.'"

Under Nation's guidance, the women successfully sold their wares in area boutiques, an entrepreneurial effort that was featured in a Moroccan magazine. "To go from never having done any type of business to having their goods on the cover of the fanciest magazine in Morocco was an incredible confidence-building experience," she says. "It was such a joy to feel like you were changing things, that you were doing something."

Nation feels her age provided an edge, partly because people of other cultures tend to revere the wisdom of elders, and partly because of her life experiences. "The (young volunteers) would be really thrown by some of the cultural things, whereas if you've lived 50 years, you adapt," she says. "Your ability to fit into their society is far greater, I think, because you've had to fit into lots of situations throughout your life."

Remembering Kennedy's call
Since 1961, when President Kennedy established the Peace Corps and challenged Americans to help bring peace and prosperity to people in developing nations, more than 190,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. Current membership is about 8,000. Each volunteer receives a living allowance and a stipend to pay for the transition back home at the end of the 27-month stint. The average age is 27, but that profile is changing, thanks to a push by Executive Director Ron Tschetter, 64, to recruit more baby boomers "people born between 1946 and 1964. His goal is to boost the number of "50-plus" volunteers from 5 percent to 15 percent by next year.

Boomers are a perfect fit for the Peace Corps, according to Tschetter. "They're givers," he says. "A high percentage are volunteering in America, while they're pursuing careers "everything from Boy Scouts to church organizations to Habitat for Humanity. They understand serving and are willing to roll up their sleeves at the grassroots level, and that's what the Peace Corps is all about."

Ready to serve
Maria Steele and Peter Neumann of Newton, Mass. (pop. 84,323), both 60, had considered joining the Peace Corps in their 20s, but "life" got in the way. They met, married and raised a family while working as field officers for the Social Security Administration, but by the mid-1990s their interest was "bubbling up" again. "We really like learning about other cultures," Steele says. "We both like to travel and we wanted to help people."

The couple had never heard of Lesotho, a small country surrounded by South Africa. But in 2004, after Peace Corps recruiters allayed their fears about Ebola and other deadly viruses, they moved into a long cinderblock building near the town of Mohales Hoek, where they spent their days helping others and their nights reading books. The simplicity was "very comforting," says Steele, who assisted AIDS orphans, trained home care workers and used her administrative skills to coordinate HIV prevention programs. Her husband worked at a post-high-school vocational training center.

Waiting 35 years to sign up actually worked in their favor, the couple says. "Younger people, while they're doing their service in the Peace Corps, are also aware of the fact that they have to find some career when they return," Neumann says. "And for us, after retirement we already had our bread and butter. Our children were grown. We knew what we were going to do when we got back. We had a good pension." Plus, his wife adds, "We brought a lifetime of experience with us, so we could hit the ground running."

Their stay in Lesotho was filled with rewards. The first Christmas, Steele wrote a letter to a South African department store and talked the retailers into donating outfits for needy orphans whose parents had died of AIDS. A few days before Christmas, she and several other volunteers arrived at the Mohales Hoek store with 22 children in tow.

"These kids had never owned a new item of clothing before, and had certainly never been shopping," Steele says. "They didn't even know what to do when they got in the store."

Like children everywhere, they quickly gravitated toward the fun stuff. "We wanted to get them the Oxford shoes, but they wanted the ballerina slippers," Steele says, laughing. "It was just such a beautiful, beautiful day "the true meaning of Christmas."

Giving back
Don Hesse was 24 the first time he joined the Peace Corps in 1968, volunteering in the village of Njala Kumboya, Sierra Leone, where he taught English to kids in fourth through eighth grades. "The children were fabulous "very bright and well-behaved," recalls Hesse, 63, of San Francisco. "I was closer in age to the kids than to most of the adults." After he returned to the United States, he landed a job at a civil rights organization, earned a law degree, then worked on the city's human rights commission for 25 years before retiring.

Two years ago, Hesse felt compelled to rejoin the Peace Corps, in part because he was too young to appreciate the experience the first time. He arrived in Jordan in July 2006 and now teaches English at an all-boys school. Hesse is the only Westerner and the only non-Muslim in a "very traditional" desert town with about 1,000 residents.

His age, experience and status as a parent and grandparent have earned him respect in the Middle Eastern country, he says. Hesse hopes that his presence will help promote cultural understanding. "The difference I hope to make here is to show a different face of America than what they get from TV and newspapers." Plus, Hesse says, "It always feels wonderful to be working with kids."

To older Americans with a sense of adventure, Hesse urges: "As a boomer, you are part of a generation that has been among the luckiest in world history. You have ridden the wave of American economic growth and expansion of opportunities that even our grandchildren may not experience. It's time to give something back, and the Peace Corps is one way to do that."