The Peace Corps pursues volunteers 50+

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Connie George and Melissa Kossler Dutton

On a visit to Thailand in 2008, Jerilyn Ray-Shelley, second from right, is shown with her daughter Caitlyn (far right), who was a Peace Corp worker there at the time. The trip inspired Jerilyn to pursue her own 40-year-old dream of serving in the organization, and she is now serving with the Peace Corps in Thailand herself. While only a small percentage of current volunteers is over 50, a new outreach effort seeks to recruit more older adults to serve.
Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Shelley

In 2008, Jerilyn Ray-Shelley, 65, went to Thailand to visit her daughter, who was there as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. The experience rekindled her nearly 40-year-old desire to become a Peace Corps volunteer herself.

The organization, actually an independent U.S. government agency, sends trained volunteers to developing countries throughout the world.

“I had been interested in the Peace Corps since 1971,” said Ray-Shelley, a resident of Potomac, Md. Newly married at the time, she encouraged her husband to consider the two of them volunteering together. “I thought it would be a great adventure for us.”

But when her husband declined, preferring to focus on building his career, she let the idea go because, she said, “At the time, I would never have thought of going on my own.”

Describing herself as “the ultimate volunteer,” Ray-Shelley had a wealth of experience serving in support capacities for other organizations and hoped to put her acquired skill set to use for the Peace Corps. Now a relatively new program for older volunteers is now allowing her to do just that.

 She departed in January for her own Peace Corps stint, coincidentally sent to Thailand just as her daughter had been.

A little over a year ago, the Peace Corps announced a partnership with AARP, the advocacy group for people 50 and older. As a result of the arrangement, the Peace Corps has been recruiting older volunteers, recognizing their experience, maturity and commitment to volunteering.

It also recognizes their sheer numbers: Baby Boomers make up about 25 percent of the U.S. population, and volunteer more than any other age group.

It’s “a natural fit,” said Kristina Edmunson, deputy communications director for the Peace Corps. “Older Americans who serve with Peace Corps come with a wealth of life experiences, creativity and professional development that can help make an instant impact in a community overseas.”

The average age of Peace Corps volunteers is still much younger: 28. Currently, only seven percent are older than 50.

Shorter stints offered

Older Americans can serve a traditional two-year period or take part in the Peace Corps Response program, which offers shorter assignments. The Peace Corps expanded the Response program recently to include volunteers with at least 10 years of work experience and certain language skills.

Older volunteers work on the same projects as younger volunteers — including HIV/AIDS education, teaching English as a second language, agriculture, environmental awareness and more, Edmunson said.

In addition, “All Peace Corps volunteers, regardless of age, go through the same health, screening and suitability process,” she said.

Beth Dailey, a senior advisor for AARP, said 60 percent of the organization’s 37 million members engage in volunteer activities. Like the Peace Corps, Dailey said, “Volunteering is at the core of what we do.”

Over the years, members have told AARP that they like donating time to worthy causes because it lets them contribute to their communities and stay busy. “They don’t want to work full-time, but they still want to stay active in that community and give back,” Dailey said.

Baby boomers are the best-educated generation to retire from the nation’s workforce, so they have a lot to offer in terms of talents and knowledge, said Dr. Erwin Tan, a gerontologist and the director of the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Senior Corp program, a federal agency that engages seniors and others in service opportunities.

Bringing the perspective of an older adult to her Peace Corps commitment is an asset that Ray-Shelley said she would not have had if she had signed up in her 20s when the idea first appealed to her.

“I think that maybe some of the things that younger volunteers might worry about won’t scare me,” she said. Her daughter, Caitlyn Shelley, 31 and now home after completing her Peace Corps mission, agrees that the organization’s older volunteers bring a steadiness to their work.

“I think the way she’ll be treated will be very different from the way I was because she’s older, and age is revered in that region of the world,” Shelley said of her mom.

“We had a big percentage of older volunteers in my group — about seven out of 50 — and it brought a different dynamic. They came in with a calmer demeanor, whereas the younger volunteers were more excitable.”

Making Peace Corps a career

Janet Schuhl, 66, served in the Peace Corps from 2006 to 2008 after retiring from a 30-year teaching career. Learning that she could put her career experience to use as a volunteer abroad was an inspiring way to begin her retirement years, she said.

“When I found out the Peace Corps didn’t have an upper age limit, I got really excited,” she said, “and I thought I finally had all the skills that would make me a good volunteer.” Schuhl was sent to the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific to teach native teachers how to teach English.

Her Peace Corps mission was so rewarding that when Schuhl returned to the U.S., she went to work as a recruiter for the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

According to Ray-Shelley, the opportunity to serve in the Peace Corps as an older volunteer “is really a gift you’re giving yourself.” The process of putting a lifetime of developed skills and strengths to good use by serving the world “allows you to look at your whole life, and to revere your life,” she said.

For more information on joining the Peace Corps at age 50 or older, visit www.peacecorps.gov/50plus.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.