|By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-13-23.balt.east.verizon.net - 18.104.22.168) on Wednesday, March 10, 2004 - 6:22 pm: Edit Post|
At the age of 77, Helen Bunch has joined the Peace Corps and going to Albania
At the age of 77, Helen Bunch has joined the Peace Corps and going to Albania
A Bunch of service to give
By Bill Sterling
Age is only a number for 77-year-old Helen Bunch, a recent Peace Corps volunteer
At a time when most people like her are feeling the aches and pains of advancing age and looking forward to rocking on the front porch, Helen Bunch is packing for what surely will be an adventure.
And it's not a sightseeing tour of Europe or a getaway to some exotic beach. Instead, at the age of 77, Bunch has joined the Peace Corps.
Bunch doesn't find it remarkable that she's leaving the comforts of her Onancock home to live in one of the poorest countries in Europe for the next two years. Albania has the worst telephone service in Europe with fewer than two per 100 inhabitants -- it is doubtful that every village has telephone service.
"The Peace Corps officials asked me if I was OK with the fact that I may have to use outdoor privies. I told them I was 10 years old before my family had a bathroom," she said.
Bunch is the type who does not have air conditioning in her home -- and it's not a matter of finances. She lives simply but comfortably because her priorities are different than most.
Bunch, who has a master's degree in nursing, retired Jan. 31 after 26 years with the Eastern Shore Community Services Board as a psychiatric nurse manager.
Asked why she worked into her late 70s, Bunch replies, "I like what I do. I would still be working if it wasn't for all the paperwork required today. The documentation that is necessary due to new regulations was cutting into the time I wanted to use to provide care to the patients."
Serving humanity is what drives Bunch to volunteer for the Peace Corps, but like most who give for the sake of giving, she deflects credit.
Providing for mankind is why she will spend two years in a desolate country, and although she is a member of the Presbyterian church and has served as an elder, it's not a pilgrimage made for religious reasons.
Bunch is joining the corps because it's who she is.
"I don't see any reason just to stop and not do anything when I have these skills that could be useful to someone," she says. "I'm not going to sit on the front porch and waste away. I'm not the type who would be happy playing bridge every day or chasing a little white ball. That would drive me crazy."
An active lifestyle
A member of the YMCA who attends aerobic classes regularly, Bunch does believe in exercise and a healthy diet, factors that probably account for the energy her co-workers say is typical of someone 20 or 30 years younger.
Donna Kellam, the Community Services Board's director of human services, says Bunch has been "a great role model" for her.
"She's just a ball of fire," Kellam said. "Her work ethic is unbelievable for anyone, not just someone her age. Her desire is so strong to serve her patients. She works especially hard for the indigent."
She first contacted the Peace Corps about a year ago. She went through a series of exams, including tests for bone density, hearing, stress and vision. At their suggestion, she had cataract surgery. The others she passed with flying colors.
Bunch grew up in western Pennsylvania, one of three children raised by a steel worker and his wife. There was no money for college.
She married and started a family. Her husband died of a heart attack, leaving her at 31 with three children, ages 10, 5 and six months.
She supported them mostly as a waitress. When her oldest daughter went to college, so did she. But, at the age of 39, it was not the typical college experience.
"My daughter and I were freshmen in college at the same time, but the family rule was I had to come home to my own house each night," she says with a chuckle.
She commuted to a community college and then earned a bachelor's degree in nursing from Jersey City State College, still raising three children on her own. She then went on to earn a master's degree in nursing from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
When two children were on their own and the youngest was a teen-ager, she married George Bunch, who eventually came to the Eastern Shore and entered the real-estate and restaurant business.
"George never met a stranger," she says. "We thought this was God's country."
In 1985 she lost her second husband to a heart attack. Then 59, she continued to work well past the age when many retire because she loved what she did.
"I enjoy helping others," she says. "Albania has the highest infant mortality rate in Europe. If I can help save just a couple of lives by working with the mothers on prenatal education, I will be happy."
She will report to Washington, D.C., later this month for a pretraining meeting and then fly to Albania with a group of 33 other Peace Corps workers on March 25.
For now, she goes to the library each day to study the Albanian language on a compact disc. She has never spoken a foreign language, but she is determined to able to communicate with her patients as soon as possible. Very little English is spoken in that country, she says.
Bunch is also busy visiting her three children, scattered from New Jersey to Florida. Along with two stepchildren by her second marriage, she has 13 grandchildren, including two who simply "adopted" her as their grandmother.
Her daughters follow the "You go, girl," school of thought about her plans to join the Peace Corps.
Her son says, "Mom, you've got two weeks to change your mind."
He may have read on the Internet that "when Albania ended 46 years of Communist rule (in the early 1990s) and established a multiparty democracy, the transition has proven difficult as corrupt governments have tried to deal with high unemployment, a dilapidated infrastructure, widespread gangsterism, and disruptive political opponents."
Preparing for the trip
Bunch says summers in Albania are "hot and muggy" and winters are "cold and wet." Among her purchases have been a down sleeping bag and a warm coat.
One item she has yet to find is a windup clock. "All the clocks now are digital or battery-operated," she says. "I need a windup clock because many places won't have electricity, and there is no guarantee batteries will be available."
Asked if she would miss family gatherings at the holidays in the coming year, Bunch acknowledged she would, but added she would be sending presents and that the opportunity to go sightseeing in nearby Greece and other parts of Europe during her few days of leave was exciting.
The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then-U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.
Since that time, more than 170,000 Peace Corps volunteers have been invited by 136 host countries to work on issues including AIDS education, information technology and environmental preservation.
As in the early years, many volunteers are just graduating from college, but there are also numerous retired volunteers who find Peace Corps a way of "giving back" and sharing a lifetime of work and wisdom. There is no upper age to serve, and many who are well into their 80s have volunteered and continue to serve.
Bunch, who turns 78 on Saturday, will be 80 when she finishes her two-year commitment to the Peace Corps. She will decide then whether to re-enlist or come back to the Eastern Shore.
And although she is just a smidgen over 5 feet "and shrinking," she has never stood taller among her friends and peers for her decision to help others in need halfway around the world.
But for Bunch, who has faced numerous challenges in her life, it's just one more adventure that is only just beginning.
Originally published Wednesday, March 10, 2004
|By donna tabor (ppp09-as6.tmx.com.ni - 22.214.171.124) on Monday, March 29, 2004 - 2:46 am: Edit Post|
You Go Girl! I joined the PC in 1996 at the age of 56 and came to Nicaragua. I´m still here, working with the children that stole my heart.
I hope that you have the same wonderful experiences in your PC assignment, Helen. Drop me a line at (honest to goodness, my email address!) UGOGIRL@tmx.com.ni.
By the way, I´m from western PA too....Pittsburgh!