July 19, 2003 - Career Journal: Older Volunteers Heed the Call to Volunteer And Discover a New Career

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Older Volunteers Heed the Call to Volunteer And Discover a New Career

Read and comment on this story from the Career Journal that the number of volunteers age 50 and older is larger than ever -- an estimated 7% of the organization's 7,000 members. Like Peter Foley, many nurtured the idea of joining the Peace Corps for several decades. Today, their age and experience, they contend, have left them better equipped to handle the rigors of volunteer work overseas. Read the story at:

Heed the Call to Volunteer And Discover a New Career*

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Heed the Call to Volunteer And Discover a New Career

By Gene Ruffenach
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

From The Wall Street Journal Online

When President Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, he challenged the nation's youth to further the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries.

Some of those young adults answered the call almost at once. Some took a bit longer.

Peter Foley, associate general counsel for the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, was 51 years old when he joined the Peace Corps in 1999. As a teenager growing up in Michigan in the 1960s, he remembers being "intrigued" by the volunteer organization. "It was something I always wanted to do," he says. After more than 20 years of practicing law, the timing finally proved right.

"I had been fortunate in my life," Mr. Foley says, "and this was an opportunity to give something back."

The Peace Corps, now in its fifth decade, is showing a bit more gray these days. Though men and women in their 20s still dominate the group's ranks, the number of volunteers age 50 and older is larger than ever -- an estimated 7% of the organization's 7,000 members. Like Peter Foley, many nurtured the idea of joining the Peace Corps for several decades. Today, their age and experience, they contend, have left them better equipped to handle the rigors of volunteer work overseas.

"Young people want to change the world, but it doesn't always happen that way," says Joanne Koski, 66, who just completed her third year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cape Verde, off the coast of Africa. "You have to learn to be patient."

With President Bush now seeking to double the Peace Corps' size in the next five years, The Wall Street Journal spent a morning with four individuals who signed aboard in later life. They are:


Donald M. Pattillo, 62, an educational consultant in Atlanta who served in Macedonia from 1999 to 2001.

Laddie Rollins, 64, a college professor, and Rebecca Rollins, 57, a registered nurse, who live in Sautee, Ga., and who served in the Dominican Republic from 1998 to 1999.

Shirley Triano, 59, who served twice -- in Botswana from 1989 to 1991 and Morocco from 1993 to 1995 -- and who recently completed a five-year stint as a recruiter for the Peace Corps. She is currently a graduate student at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt.

A Long-Held Desire

The Wall Street Journal: Why the Peace Corps? There are plenty of volunteer organizations to join.

Mr. Rollins: When John Kennedy was running for president in 1960, he mentioned the idea. I thought, "You know, that's a good idea." I was a senior at Georgia Institute of Technology and in an atmosphere with a lot of international students. And it was intriguing to me then. But I ... had debts. I needed to work.

The next time I thought about it was when we were thinking about retirement, and there was an article in the Atlanta newspaper about a ceremony to send people off [to] the Peace Corps. A person in the article was retired, and they were going to some of the former Soviet countries where they were trying to set up businesses.

And I was working ... with finances and computers and things like that. So I showed the article to my wife, and she read it and said, "You know, we could do that." So when I realized she was interested, then we immediately called and got the [application] forms and started the process.

Ms. Triano: I had always wanted to go overseas. When I worked in dentistry -- an oral surgeon's assistant -- the doctors would take a month every year and [visit] developing countries and do dental work. And they always wanted one of the assistants to go along. But of course, I could never afford it because I was raising my children. So, that was always in the back of my mind: I wanted to go somewhere and help people.

Then in 1988, I had a friend whose daughter served in Jamaica, and there was a hurricane, and she lost everything she had. And her mother [went] down there ... to bring her more things. And I thought, "Wow, that was an adventure." And one day -- on a whim -- I just called the [Peace Corps'] 800 number. I decided...this is going to be it. This is for me.

WSJ: The Peace Corps is thought of as a younger person's game. Did you have any concerns about going overseas in your 50s or 60s?

Mrs. Rollins: Yes, mainly because -- in the Dominican Republic -- it was assumed that we were fluent in Spanish. And Laddie and I weren't. So we had a lot of work to do to learn Spanish. And I thought, "I'll learn it fast. Laddie and I are both bright. We'll pick up things quickly." But language becomes more difficult when you get older, and I didn't believe that at first. And that was a real challenge -- to learn the language.

WSJ: That raises a good point. Are there any specific advantages or disadvantages to being an older volunteer?

Ms. Triano: I think there are a lot of advantages. One is that you do have the years of experience, and you've been through trials and tribulations. You know how to handle adversity; you're able to be a little more resilient in some things. And in many of the developing countries, age is revered. Age is very highly respected.

Mr. Rollins: [Laughs] I thought it was certainly an advantage just having a little salt-and-pepper hair.

WSJ: What about disadvantages?

Ms. Triano: A lot of times older people are more set in their ways. So you'll hear a lot of grumblings from older volunteers [like] "I don't have the coffee I like," and "I don't have the newspaper I want to read." It's just normal grumblings because you're out of your pattern.

Mr. Pattillo: There were certain aspects of the culture that I had greater difficulty accepting or dealing with.

In Macedonia -- and this is probably left over from the communist-socialist system -- there's a general lack of privacy, a lack of respect for your person. I was in an urban area, and if it was crowded and if you were standing in somebody's way, [instead of saying,] "Excuse me, could I get by?" they just push you. And I don't mean tap you on the shoulder. I mean shove you. And that's considered the way to do things.

And the other thing is they will ask you questions about your finances or how much money you make or how rich you are -- all that stuff. And of course, that's not considered proper etiquette in this country.

The Makings of a Volunteer

WSJ: Are there certain traits, then, that make for a successful Peace Corps volunteer -- like tolerance or patience?

Mr. Rollins: I think being able to accept things as they come. Call it resiliency.

Mrs. Rollins: Open-mindedness -- and a genuine liking for other people.

Ms. Triano: I think you have to be innovative and creative. All the resources that you're used to [having] aren't in place. And you have to be able to ... come up with an alternative way of doing things sometimes.

WSJ: That leads us to your jobs. Talk about a typical day and what you had -- or didn't have -- to work with.

Ms. Triano: When I first arrived in Botswana, I was to be headmistress of the girls' school. I was to teach classes, develop curriculum, train the teachers and administer the school. And when I got there, there were no books. There were no teacher-plan books. There was nothing ... from the word go. So I had to fly by the seat of my pants. You have to be able to assume that role.

Mrs. Rollins: I was a public-health nurse in the states. [But] I finally figured out that I was assigned to this particular location [in the Dominican Republic] because they needed Laddie's skills. So I felt like sort of a sore thumb [and wondered] "What am I going to do?"

I had gone out into the community and met a lot of people. One day a lady showed up at my door, and she said, "We need someone to help check the vision of our children." And that's when I felt, "Ah! This is something I can do."

I made an "E" chart, which is a vision chart. I Xeroxed the one at the Peace Corps office, and then I went home and cut out the "E's" and put [them] on a poster. Then I got a little portable hearing audiometer, and I went to the schools and did hearing and vision screens on the kids. And then the hospital set up a place where they wanted me to come and check people.

The vision and hearing got me into the community. But in general, I had to work really hard to find something to do, and that got to be frustrating.

WSJ: So, sometimes jobs are well-structured -- and sometimes they're not?

Mr. Pattillo: I was first assigned to Junior Achievement, a business-education program for schools. I was told that I was supposed to conduct training for [the program's] teachers. I also was supposed to write grants, raise money ... and act as a general consultant to the program.

[But] when I got there, I found out the Junior Achievement program simply wasn't operating, because of some political problem with the Ministry of Education. So I went to the Peace Corps and asked to be reassigned. But yeah, that was a very frustrating situation.

Ms. Triano: Some of the programs do go astray, and people sometimes can be frustrated ... because their assignment isn't what they thought it was going to be.

But the [Peace Corps] directors [in each country] have a responsibility to make sure that the volunteers are productive ... and that they're doing something that's beneficial to the community. By and large, the majority of people complete their assignments as they're supposed to.

WSJ: Is it more difficult to find an assignment as a couple, as opposed to an individual?

Ms. Triano: Yes, it is.

Mr. Rollins: [The Peace Corps] has to find a community that needs both of your skills. And it's not unusual to have an assignment where you don't really do what you're sent there to do. I'd say a very high percentage of the Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic, at least, end up teaching an English class at a school, and they're not assigned to do that.

WSJ: What about daily living? What were some of the challenges?

Mrs. Rollins: Electricity was a problem. Every day the electricity went out. We would have electricity maybe six to eight hours a day -- and that would be in the middle of the day when you didn't need it!

Water was the biggest problem. We had pipes, but there was rarely water in the pipes.

Mr. Rollins: Water was something you stopped and thought about every day. Before we go to work, before we do anything, [we ask], "Have we got the water we need? And if not, how are we going to get it?"

There's a favorite Peace Corps saying: The optimist sees the glass half full, the pessimist sees it half empty, and the Peace Corps volunteer says, "Hey, I can have a shower tonight!"

Ms. Triano: I had a very light case of malaria. And if that was the light side, I would not want to see the full side. It was pretty bad: very extreme high fever and the shakes and the chills.

WSJ: It sounds discouraging.

Ms. Triano: The Peace Corps isn't for everyone. There are some people who never will be able to accept the fact that [for instance] you eat goat meat at five o'clock in the morning.

It's OK to go there and not like everything about all the people. It's OK to go to a country and absolutely hate all the bugs that you see, or hate the fact that it never rains -- and when it does, the air smells of urine for two days. You just have to be willing to accept all those things.

And if you are -- if you're open to adventure and learning something new, and providing someone with resources and a little bit of experience -- then by all means go for it.

Mixed Verdict

WSJ: Would you do it again?

Ms. Triano: Yes. I love adventure, and I think ... there's always something new to learn regardless of how old you are. And I think the older you get...the more you have to offer.

Mrs. Rollins: I would love to say yes I would do it again. But I don't think I would. I lost 20 pounds when I was there, and I had a lot of illness. I would love to do something in another country -- a vaccine promotion -- on a short-term [basis]. But two years of my life? I don't think I'm willing to give two years of my life again.

Mr. Rollins: There were some difficult times, but yes -- I would love to do it again. I would love to go to another country.

Mr. Pattillo: Definitely not. I don't regret going, but I think I would be a little distrustful of what kind of assignment I would get.

WSJ: What advice would you give to would-be volunteers?

Mr. Rollins: If you want to learn, then go. I wanted to learn how people live. I wanted to learn another language. I wanted to immerse myself in another culture. If you're willing to put up with the differences, then go.

Ms. Triano: Come with an open mind. Come knowing that you're going to be challenged on a daily basis, whether it's finding clean water to brush your teeth [or] whether it's combating daily diarrhea for a couple of months, until your body starts acclimating to the microbes in that country.

Know that just by being in a community, you are giving something to someone. Your inspiration is going to work wonders, whether you've trained somebody to do something or whether you just sat and had tea with them. You are making an impact -- even though you never see it during your two years. Your presence and your personality rub off on other people, and you do make an impact.

Mrs. Rollins: I felt like if we didn't do anything other than get to know our neighbors and let our neighbors know what we were like as Americans, then it would be worth the trip.

That's one of the things that appealed to me about the Peace Corps: the grass-roots nature of it. You don't have to go and change a community. You don't have to impress anybody with what you can do. Just let them know what real Americans are like.

WSJ: And what about the reverse? How did it change you?

Mrs. Rollins: I had always known I lived in a privileged country [where] we have so many more advantages. But when you live someplace else and you see the difference, you really appreciate home. You drive down the expressway and you think, "It's clean." Or, "I can drink water out of the spigot."

So you learn to appreciate the advantages we have here. Like a hot shower. I still appreciate it when I get in the shower and feel that warm water. It's wonderful.

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After Sara Evans was assaulted she left the Peace Corps and returned to the United States. But her ordeal was only beginning. Read about a volunteer's courage in this story.
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