To those 50 and older: Peace Corps wants you

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/16/07
When Lillian Carter approached her children in 1966 about joining the Peace Corps, she expected some resistance. Carter was 68. The Peace Corps was in its infancy, and largely staffed by college-age kids looking to save the world at the time of the Vietnam War. "She was looking for something exciting to do," said Jimmy Carter, then a state senator. "Age was no barrier for her."Lillian Carter spent 21 months in the Peace Corps, working as a nurse in India treating lepers. She returned to America with 10 cents to her name and was so emotionally and physically drained that she had to be wheeled off the plane to Atlanta in a wheelchair. "It opened my eyes to the need in the developing world for better health care, when I was governor, president and now," Jimmy Carter said. "[The Carter Center has] programs in 71 nations. [Her experience] has affected my life profoundly."
This afternoon, the Peace Corps will honor the former president's mother, who died in 1983, by presenting the Lillian Carter Award in a ceremony at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Jimmy Carter and Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter will present the award to Shirley Maly of Nebraska, who served in Uruguay from 1992 to 1995.
Established in 1986, the award is given every two years to a volunteer who was at least age 50 at the time of service. Tschetter said he also will use the ceremony to begin a campaign to recruit more people over 50. Only about 5 percent of the 7,749 Peace Corps volunteers are over 50. The average volunteer is 27 years old.
"We are putting a lot of new emphasis on trying to get the boomers," said Tschetter, 65, who in the 1960s volunteered with his wife, Nancy, in India. Tschetter said he wants 10 percent of volunteers to be older Americans and hopes to recruit up to 500 by next year. Tschetter said recruiting efforts will expand to retirement groups, like the AARP.
"They are the Kennedy people," he said. "They heard about Kennedy's call in the 1960s. But at the time, they thought, 'Wonderful, but I need a job.' Now, they are here, they are healthy, they have resources and they really have a heart to serve."
John F. Kennedy, during his 1960 inauguration, laid the groundwork for the Peace Corps with : "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you —- ask what you can do for your country."
Established by a 1961 executive order, the Peace Corps was immediately popular, and by 1966 had 15,556 volunteers in more than 55 countries."The goals of 1961 are still the goals of today. To take a sustainable skill abroad and bring a better understanding of America," said Tschetter. "It is amazing, when you visit the villages, the work, the connections, the grass roots have not changed a lot."
Tschetter said 98 percent of volunteers are college graduates who serve in 73 countries. About 1,800 returned Peace Corps volunteers live in metro Atlanta. "It changes you drastically. You go from being kind of a playful college kid to being a serious person," said Jimmy Carter's grandson, Jason Carter, who volunteered in South Africa in 1998, a year after graduating from Duke University. "The Peace Corps settled me down."A lawyer in Atlanta, Jason Carter will host the event. My great-grandmother turned 70 in the Peace Corps," he said. "Her experience affected our whole family. It is one of the things that drives us."
Tschetter said a bulk of Peace Corps work involves HIV and AIDS. And with an ever-changing global political climate, safety is a top priority. "Sometimes we will leave [a country] for safety and security reasons," said Tschetter, speaking from Botswana.

Julia Campbell, 40, a former journalist, was killed in April in the Philippines. A resident has been charged with her murder. "Safety is our first, second and third priority," said Tschetter. He said despite safety concerns the Peace Corps still has three times more applicants than it can place. "Our volunteerism, application rate
and interest have actually gone up since 9/11. We are right around the 30-year high," he said. "The Peace Corps is very vibrant."
Back in 1966, Lillian Carter stressed that she wanted to go "to a country where the people were destitute, dark-skinned and needed help."As chronicled in "Away From Home: Letters to My Family" —- a book co-written by her daughter, Gloria Carter Spann —- Lillian Carter was sent to Vikhroli, a suburb of Mumbai [then known as
Bombay]. Carter said his mother, a registered nurse, initially worked in family planning, but soon began helping a doctor at a local clinic. "I was in the state Senate at the time, running for governor. I was able to contact some of the pharmaceutical companies and got free medicine to send over there," Carter recalled. "But the doctor was grossly overloaded and would treat between 200 to 300 people a day. She gave away all her money and food. She came back debilitated."
In 1980, Steve Hunsicker, a young radio reporter, interviewed Lillian Carter during the Democratic National Convention. They didn't discuss the Peace Corps, but Hunsicker knew of her work. He went on to enjoy a nice career, rising to news director at a television station in West Palm Beach, Fla. Then he quit. To join the Peace Corps. "I thought maybe this was the time to do this," said Hunsicker, 47, who plans to attend the ceremony. He said he will be assigned to the South Pacific to work in business development. "When I was 28, I knew some things. Clearly, I know a lot of things now," said Hunsicker. "I think I have a life experience and a maturity level that will serve me well."

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