July 20, 2003 - Alameda Times Star: The changing face of the Peace Corps

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The changing face of the Peace Corps

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The changing face of the Peace Corps*

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The changing face of the Peace Corps

From 20-somethings to 80-somethings, the 42-year-old Corps is increasingly showing the world who Americans really are.

By Jill Tucker - STAFF WRITER

Gloria Watkins doesn't look like a stereotypical Peace Corps volunteer.

She's not fresh out of college. She doesn't wear Birkenstocks. And she doesn't carry a copy of ``Kumbaya'' in her back pocket. Watkins is 70. She's also a widow.

And now, the former Oakland substitute teacher is a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, following the more than 168,000 volunteers who have served in 136 countries over the last four decades.

Watkins, who is African American, is among an increasingly greater number of seniors, couples and minorities entering the overseas service - helping to create a Peace Corps that looks more like the American melting pot than ever before.

Soon to follow Watkins overseas is the Fremont man who remembers Peace Corps volunteers as a teen-ager in his native Iran. Or the Berkeley college student following in the footsteps of her Peace Corps parents. And the newly retired Livermore man with two grown children and a desire to see the world.

They all have little in common save the desire to work for peace in a war-torn world.

``We're starting to build a Peace Corps for the 21st century that looks like America,'' said U.S. Peace Corps director Gaddi Vasquez. One that includes all colors, all faiths, all backgrounds.

``For most people in the world, the first American they ever meet will be a Peace Corps volunteer,'' he said. ``So, it is particularly important that volunteers serving as grassroots ambassadors reflect our nation's diversity.''

Unlike some of her 20-something peers, Watkins said she remembers when President Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps and implored his fellow Americans in 1961 to ``ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.''

She took those words to heart, spending her life working for her community, volunteering at schools and the Oakland Museum. But it was time, she said, to find something new.

``I play bridge, but bridge is not what I want to do 24-7,'' she said just days before leaving for South Africa in June. ``I was looking for a new adventure.''

`Life ... too short'

On Sept. 11, 2001, local stock trader Tony Ives was on the phone with colleagues in the World Trade Center when the planes hit. Those friends made it out, but five people he knew did not.

``It was a very difficult time,'' he said. ``After 9-11, me and my sister just started talking about our lives. I was talking about my future and wanting to do something else.''

By Christmas, the 39-year-old Oakland resident was filling out his Peace Corps application.

``I'm turning 40. Being a stock trader never made me happy,'' he said. ``Life is definitely too short.''

Ives, also African American, will leave for Honduras on July 28, where he will provide business consulting, perhaps for coffee growers.

While the majority of Peace Corps volunteers are still 20-something college graduates entering the job market, there are an increasing number of older applicants, like Ives, looking for a mid-life career change.

The average age of the nearly 7,000 volunteer currently overseas is now 28. The oldest volunteer, however, is 83.

While volunteers have to be a U.S. citizen and in good health, there is essentially no upper age limit. The minimum age is 18, although 86 percent of volunteers have undergraduate degrees.

And a growing number are married.

Oakland residents John and Val Bowman have been serving in Suriname since May. Married for 23 years, they left their combined eight children and 15 grandchildren behind to volunteer as John's first official activity upon retiring from his 37-year career in journalism and marketing. They will work in business development, helping to market wood carvings made by Maroons, descendants of runaway slaves.

``We knew we didn't want to retire and just sit in front of the television,'' John Bowman said.

``There's an alternative to just quitting and finding little things to fill your time,'' Val Bowman added.

Instead of watching television, the Bowmans are now learning the common language Sranan Tongo as well as some Dutch. In an e-mail sent during their three months of training in language, health and culture, John Bowman said the heat was sweltering, they were hand-washing clothes and then hope the rain holds off long enough to dry them.

He also threw in some of his newly acquired language ability.

``Faitan. Mi go bun. Mi wanti o go na wan filum. Mi lobi Suriname, ma mi misi waka e Grand Straate na Oakland,'' he wrote. Translation ``How are you? I am good. I want to go to a movie. I love Suriname, but I miss walking on Grand Avenue in Oakland.''

Many former volunteers

California and particularly the Bay Area are full of current and former Peace Corps volunteers.

More than 10 percent of volunteers now serving are from the state, with 355 from the Bay Area alone.

And applications in Northern California are on the rise - up 11 percent from 2001 to 2002 - mirroring a national trend. It's a good bet the sour economy and 6 percent unemployment rate are sparking some of the increased interest, Peace Corps officials said.

But a lot of people, like Oakland's Ives are also taking a hard look at the world around them and deciding that patriotism doesn't always come in a uniform.

Livermore resident Harry Brindle sold his insurance agency last year and decided it was finally time to apply to the Peace Corps - something he'd thought about for a long time.

He's scheduled to leave in September to work in business consulting, possibly in Uzbekistan.

``I do remember the Kennedy speech,'' he said. ``It's something I've thought about for a number of years.

Brindle, who will leave behind two grown children and grandchildren, added that he wants to simply expand to a global level his long-term commitment to improving his community.

``They're our ambassadors,'' said U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, speaking of local and national volunteers. ``They're probably the most effective ambassadors in the world. I think they represent the best of the American people.''

Lee has proposed a fund-raising postage stamp, which would provide extra funds to the $275 million Peace Corps budget - similar to the 40-cent first-class stamp that raised $7 million for breast cancer research.

``It is a peace stamp in a time of war and uncertainty and terror and anxiety,'' Lee said. ``We need to have images to give young people a sense that there are many people in this country that support peace.

It's a sentiment that rings true for 22-year-old University of California, Berkeley graduate Elizabeth Garamendi.

``It's a wonderful opportunity to serve,'' said Garamendi, who also will leave for Honduras later this month for an assignment in parks and wildlife. ``We're in the aftermath of a huge war in the Middle East. It's definitely a time to work for peace.'' But for Garamendi, a stint in the Peace Corps is also in her blood.

Her parents, state insurance commissioner John Garamendi and his wife Patti, served in Ethiopia from 1966-1968. Garamendi is the third of her five siblings to volunteer.

``We're very happy,'' John Garamendi said. ``We always wanted our children to serve in any number of ways.''

Helped now helping

After more than 40 years, the Peace Corps is not only seeing the children of former volunteers heading overseas.

Ahmad Falsafi was a teen-ager in Iran when he met the Peace Corps volunteers serving in his small hometown.

``We enjoyed talking to them and learned the English language,'' said the 57-year-old from his Fremont home. ``Very good memories, very good memories.''

Four decades later, Falsafi, now an American citizen, will be a Peace Corps volunteer himself, teaching English most likely in a Central Asian country. He is now getting final medical clearance and will learn his host country within the next couple of months.

``I'm thinking that I may be useful for somebody in a small town in a poor country,'' he said, adding that it will be an opportunity for him to represent the United States, his two cultures, and more importantly humanity. ``If you think of humanity, there is no difference.''

It will be an exceptional opportunity, if Bruce Nelson's experience is any indication.

Nelson, a San Pablo resident, served in Iran from 1972-1974, about a decade after Falsafi first met Peace Corps volunteers there. ``I think it was life changing,'' he said. ``For a lot of volunteers, the personal contact that they make is what ends up being the real treasure.''

Nelson, 54, was an English teacher in the village of Taft. Water and electricity were recent amenities. He lived in an adobe house. While there, he helped translate modern medical information for doctors who only spoke farsi - helping to bring treatment to a region suffering from a leukemia cluster.

``It's still got a very special place in my heart,'' Nelson said, recalling his two years of service from 30 years ago.

It was worth it

Alameda resident Steve O'Reilly is more recently returned from his two years of teaching science in Ghana from 1999-2001. But enough time has passed for him to concur that the heat, discomfort, frustration and loneliness that often times confront Peace Corps volunteers was worth it - and then some.

O'Reilly, an industrial engineer, lived at a boarding school in the town of Half Assini, on the coast, where it was ``extremely hot and humid.''

His students would carry water for him from local wells.

``The students typically did that for anyone who didn't have a family,'' he said, explaining it was a sign of respect.

For O'Reilly, the time on the Atlantic coast of Africa was an experience that showed him where to put his priorities.

``They didn't have much, but what they had they would share generously,'' he said, adding that they care for strangers like family. `They have a different priority system entirely. Family is most important. Family and friends. I definitely see that transcending in my relationships.

``They have so much more than any American will ever have.''

For 70-year-old Watkins, now in her first weeks in South Africa, any glowing accounts of her Peace Corps experience probably won't include the toilet conditions she will likely face, she admitted.

``I'm pretty sure I'll be in a village,'' she said, laughing at the prospect. ``I'm ready for whatever I encounter.''

Contact Jill Tucker at jtucker@angnewspapers.com

Peace Corps Q&A

- What are the requirements to join the Peace Corps? Volunteers must be at least 18 and a U.S. citizen. Married couples can serve together, but no children or pets are allowed.

- How long do volunteers serve? The typical length of service is two years, plus three months of training.

- What kind of applicants does the Peace Corps want? Volunteers must meet education and work experience requirements, but the Peace Corps considers life experiences, community involvement, volunteer work, motivations, and even hobbies. Most volunteers have a bachelor's degree.

- Do applicants need to know another language? The Peace Corps teaches more than 180 languages and dialects. Volunteers get intensive language instruction during the three months of training. Knowledge of French or Spanish is helpful.

- Do volunteers get paid? While volunteers don't receive a salary, they get a stipend to cover basic necessities like food and housing. The Peace Corps provides transportation to and from the country of service and complete medical and dental care. At the end of service, volunteers get $225 for each month - or $6,075 for 27 months.

- Can applicants choose where they want to go? Applicants can state a preference, but the Peace Corps doesn't guarantee placement in any specific country or region. Currently, Peace Corps volunteers are in 70 countries, although the countries hosting volunteers can change, depending on safety considerations and each country's desire to host volunteers.

- What is the Peace Corps lifestyle like? Every volunteer's experience is different. Some serve in rural communities or villages and are hours or even days away from another volunteer. Their housing can be basic, with no running water or electricity. Others live in modern apartments in bustling cities with other volunteers.

- Do volunteers get vacation? Volunteers get two vacation days for every month of service. They can come home for a visit or travel if they wish.

For more information on the Peace Corps go to www.peacecorps.gov or call the San Francisco regional office at (415) 977-8800.

Source: Peace Corps

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