WASHINGTON—Thirty years after they volunteered for the Peace Corps, Vermont residents Kenneth and June Nicholson signed up again in 2001 and spent the first years of their retirement teaching in Bulgaria.
Long retired at 77, Woodbury, Minn., resident Charles Harkness joined the Peace Corps partly on a challenge from his daughter. He went to Kyrgyzstan to teach.
For Ronald Tschetter, who took over as the Peace Corps' director two weeks ago after a long career in the financial industry, recruiting retirees such as the Nicholsons and Harkness is a priority.
"It's a resource that if tapped could just bring tremendous value to these countries," he said.
As Tschetter takes the reins of an organization that has a $318.8 million budget, he's looking at expanding the Peace Corps to more countries and keeping volunteers' safety a top priority. Currently the Peace Corps serves in 75 countries, and in fiscal year 2005 it had 7,810 volunteers. More than 182,000 people have flowed through the organization since it got its start in 1961.
The traditional 20-something who has a college degree is still the average Peace Corps volunteer. Only 6 percent of volunteers are older than 50. But Tschetter is interested in a new market: baby boomers. There are 78 million of them, and they're retiring soon. They're going to be looking for things to do, he said.
Tschetter, a health volunteer with his wife in India from 1966 to 1968, said retirees could bring sustainable expertise to the organization. They have decades of experience in various fields: agriculture, business, education, energy and health.
They also bring diversity.
Jody Olsen, the deputy director of the Peace Corps, said it was important for its volunteers to reflect the diversity of people living in the United States and that getting baby boomers to join was one way to do that.
"The host family sees that volunteer as a way about thinking about America," she said.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who's the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Peace Corps, has echoed that sentiment.
"We have a lot of baby boomers coming back to the Peace Corps," he said. "I hope (Tschetter) continues to diversify the volunteer base."
Saying they want baby boomers is simpler than finding them. Tschetter said recruiting young volunteers was easy: Go to college campuses. The baby boomer market isn't as definable, he said.
Later this month, Olsen will give four presentations at the AARP convention in Anaheim, Calif. She also hopes that young volunteers can get their parents interested in serving.
In Nancy O'Connell's case, she was already familiar with the Peace Corps because her daughter had volunteered in the 1980s in Tanzania. At 68, Nancy O'Connell joined the Peace Corps after 11 years of being a retired pharmacist, leaving Whispering Pines, N.C., in 2003 to serve in Suriname in South America.
"I had a really nice life, but something was missing," she said. "I knew I needed something more to my life than just retirement."
Jack Bardon, who joined the Peace Corps at 70 in 2003 with his wife, Jane, said the Peace Corps could do more to recruit retired people. "The word is not getting out like it could," he said. The Bardons, who live in St. Paul, Minn., have given presentations to people who are about to retire or have retired.
Tschetter hopes that people will consider post-retirement volunteering as new jobs.
Dropping everything at 55 to volunteer isn't the same as doing it at 25, however. There are different challenges.
For example, O'Connell said that learning a second language at her age was difficult. She spent six hours a day for seven weeks learning Dutch. The Nicholsons learned Bulgarian; Harkness tried Russian. The Bardons learned Turkmen, and by the end of their two-year stint in Turkmenistan, they'd put together a medical dictionary in Turkmen, Russian and English, which is distributed free in the country.
Older volunteers often leave behind homes they own. O'Connell and the Nicholsons didn't sell and say goodbye, though. They rented their houses instead.
Health can deter older prospects. Every applicant undergoes medical and dental examinations. A health assessment is made before they proceed.
"We just happened to be very healthy, but the Peace Corps was very willing to work with most problems that people have," Jack Bardon said.
Still, having decades on 20-somethings has its advantages.
Those interviewed said they were respected because of their age. With their knowledge, maturity and years of experience, some said they thought they were able to accomplish more. Jack Bardon said he and his wife were taken more seriously.
And thanks to advances in health, retirees seem younger and are more vigorous now, Tschetter pointed out.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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