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Peace Corps markets public service to retiring boomers

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DAYTON, Ohio — As a new member of the Peace Corps, Ralph Bernstein is trying to get used to the heat and humidity in the equatorial African nation of Ghana, the bone-jarring rides over unpaved roads and unsanitary conditions.

It would be a challenge for volunteers in their 20s. Bernstein is 84.

The Dayton man is the oldest current volunteer in the Peace Corps and part of a tidal wave of volunteers age 50 and older.

The agency last year started a marketing strategy to try to capitalize on the trend of baby boomers looking for a nontraditional retirement. It is the first time the corps has targeted older volunteers as a group and on a national scale.

Bernstein, whose wife died two years ago, said he was looking for something to make his life rewarding.

“If I weren’t working, I’d say: ‘What am I getting up in the morning for?’” the engineer and Yale graduate said in a telephone interview from Ghana.

When the Peace Corps was created in 1961,  the idea of promoting world peace by supplying developing nations with trained manpower was irresistible to many young volunteers.

Today, about 5 percent of the Peace Corps’ 8,079 volunteers are 50 or older, many of them serving as teachers. The number of applications from people in that age group has jumped nearly 40 percent this year.

That’s 9.4 percent of the total number of applicants, the highest percentage in the 47-year history of the corps, according to available data.

“It seems this generation is still looking to put their skills and knowledge to work,” said Peace Corps spokeswoman Christine Torres.

The agency still recruits the young heavily. But the experience of older volunteers qualifies them for higher-level programs, Torres said, and they command an instant respect because elders are revered in many cultures.

A new Peace Corps Web site has been created for this group. Brochures and direct mailings target 50-and-olders who fit the Peace Corps profile.

Former volunteers who served in the corps when they were 50 or older were hired and placed in the agency’s 11 regional offices to recruit people their own age. Information sessions for older prospective volunteers are being held at libraries, Rotary Clubs, AARP meetings and colleges that offer courses for seniors.

Some overseas offices have changed their practices to accommodate older volunteers.

To make it easier to learn foreign languages, more emphasis is being placed on oral and visual teaching and less on written materials. Language tutors are made available to older volunteers throughout their service.

Offices are being stocked with more and different medications and medical equipment directed at illnesses and maladies common to older people.

Denney and Linda Rives, both 60, of Kansas City, Mo., left in September for a two-year tour in Azerbaijan — nestled between Iran and Russia — after selling their house and disposing of their cars.

“It’s funny being homeless,” Denney Rives said. “It was a big step. It’s an odd feeling, but it is sort of exciting.”

Rives, a Baptist minister who later went into computer programming, said he obtained a student deferment during the Vietnam War and feels some guilt about escaping the combat.

“I owe my country two years,” he said. “This is a way I can serve.”

The oldest volunteer in Peace Corps history was Arthur Goodfriend of Honolulu. He finished his second tour in Hungary in 1994 at 86.

Older volunteers don’t always complete their service. Sometimes health problems or family obligations come up.

A 62-year-old St. Louis volunteer working in China was forced to come home after she was diagnosed with a heart murmur. A 53-year-old volunteer in Bolivia returned to the United States after he was diagnosed with cancer. And a 56-year-old woman serving in Africa opted to leave after learning that her daughter was getting married.

Margaret Pratley, 82, of Berkeley, Calif., joined the Peace Corps at 60 after retiring as a schoolteacher and went to Africa to teach English, then to Sri Lanka.

Pratley returned home because arthritis and headaches were slowing her down. But she rejoined the corps at 79 and worked in Thailand before finally leaving.

She misses it.

“When you retire, what do you do? You don’t just shut down,” she said. “You know it’s not going to be a cakewalk. I was just open to it.”

(Associated Press)