Senior World: Peace Corps Service Attracts Growing Number of Older Recruits

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Peace Corps Library: Special Reports: November 26 - Proposal for Senior Volunteer Corps: Senior World: Peace Corps Service Attracts Growing Number of Older Recruits

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Peace Corps Service Attracts Growing Number of Older Recruits

Peace Corps Service Attracts Growing Number of Older Recruits

Dedicated Volunteers Making a Difference

By Sheri C. Neville

The monsoons flooded the parking lot outside the office in Thailand, where Connie Winschel worked and, for five weeks, she and co-workers had to carefully make their way -- 300 steps -- along a narrow pipe walkway which ran from the highway to the building.

"The water was full of snakes, frogs, lizards and other things, so you didn't want to fall in," recalled Connie as she reminisced about some of her recent Peace Corps experiences. When she returned home from two years service in Thailand, the 64-year-old grandmother was invited by the Corps to become a recruiter in the Los Angeles office.

"Actually, I wanted to extend my service for another year," Winschel said. She'd loved working at an AIDS hospice in a Buddhist monastery , which was planning to build a 64-bed hospice for infants in which she desperately wanted to serve. However, her five living children and 13 grandchildren -- three of them born while Winschel was away -- wanted her to spend time with them. "Go home and be a recruiter. Find other volunteers," her country director advised.

Enjoys Recruiting

Working in Thailand was a great experience, as is being a recruiter, Winschel said, adding, "There is satisfaction in turning people on. Watching them get excited. Inspiring them to go into the Peace Corps." Since her debut at the Los Angeles office, she has spoken to college groups, given seminars at a senior center, (which produced a healthy number of applicants), and assisted others interested in serving.

"My oldest applicant is Sidney Tice, 76, of San Bernardino. He's going to work in Urban Youth Development in the Asia Pacific, probably beginning this spring," Winschel said.

When interviewed, Tice, who has four children and five grandchildren, said he is excited about applying to the Peace Corps. A family counselor and mediator, skilled in dispute resolution, he recently decided to join after he and his dog were returning from a hike.

"The sun was sinking, the sky was beautiful and there were wildflowers all around me. A breeze was blowing and I was thinking, `Life is pretty good. This is a time you have new options. Things can happen. What do you want to do with it?

Saw Poster

"That weekend, I saw the Peace Corps poster in the building where I work. Since 1961, when President Kennedy started the organization, I'd wanted to join. But I always had other obligations. I said, 'Now is the time."'

Reasons for wanting to serve in the Peace Corps are varied. Winschel, widowed in 1987, had returned to Fairfield University, Conn., to earn her master's degree, followed by four years as a medical social worker at a Florida hospital, then volunteer work for a hospice. When her eldest son, Tom, 38, developed terminal lung cancer, she took over his care until his death, seven months later.

"While I was taking care of Tom -- he died in March 1994 -- I was trying to decide what would motivate me to have a purpose in my life. I was sitting with him one day and the Peace Corps' 800 number flashed on the television screen. I called the number and here I am."

Wants to Return

Already, Winschel had visited more than 20 countries. But I'd never been to Asia and didn't care anything about going there. Now, I just can't wait to find a way to go back."

Her volunteer experience began with a 19-hour jet flight from San Francisco to Bangkok. "There were 31 of us and we arrived at the airport at 2 a.m. I was totally wired, very excited, and couldn't sleep. Just learning about Bangkok was overwhelming. With 12 million people there, the traffic makes Los Angeles look like Nebraska. It's very scary, at first, when you can't read the signs or speak the language."

Lived with Family

After four days in a small Bangkok hotel, where the trainees learned how to count, order food and change money, and a few common phrases, Winschel was off to live for three months in the Province of Ang Thong with her assigned homestay family, who spoke no English. "Every morning at 6:30, the daughter would awaken me with a cup of Ovaltine and a bowl of rice and fish for breakfast," she laughed.

Her group was tutored by Thai nationals, who spent three intense months teaching them how to speak (not read) Thai. Volunteers slept on mats on the floor. "If you can survive training, you can survive the Peace Corps," Winschel said.

AIDS Training

Before embarking for Asia, her recruiter had asked Winschel to become HIV-AIDS certified by the American Red Cross. After completing language/cultural training, she was sent to work in a provisional health office. For one year, Winschel taught HIV-AIDS education/prevention in schools, military installations, prisons and other venues. AIDS, she said, is rampant in Thailand and has only declined, somewhat, since the Peace Corps began education/prevention programs.

Her second year in Thailand, she lived and worked in a Buddhist monastery AIDS hospice, sitting with dying patients and counseling families. The head monk needed an English-speaking volunteer to work with patients and speak with visitors from other countries who were interested in the monastery's unique and innovative hospice program.

There, Winschel learned patience, and her philosophy of not judging or imposing her will on others ("Just be the best person you can be wherever you are"), was reinforced.

"Everyone should have the Peace Corps experience. It gives you such satisfaction to feel you've made a difference, and such an appreciation for everything we have in our own country." It is, she agrees with the Peace Corps motto, "The toughest job you'll ever love."

"It puts everything into perspective," she said, like foolishly becoming upset over things that aren't important, an attitude summed up in the Thai expression, "Mai Pen Rai," which means, "Never mind. Don't worry about it." When Winschel first heard the words it gave her a start. Just before her son, Tom, died, he said, "Never mind, Mom. Never mind."

Sheri C. Neville is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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