Since the U.S. Peace Corps was founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the agency's mission has remained the same: to promote peace and friendship throughout the world. But in recent years, the 46-year-old agency has seen one significant change in the faces of its volunteers. The number of people age 50 and over going abroad to serve has increased. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim has the story.
The oldest volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps is an 81-year-old woman currently serving in Thailand. She may be the oldest volunteer in the agency, but at age 72, Beryl Cheal is not far behind. Cheal went to Moldova with the Peace Corp at the age of 69 to work on an education project in the east European nation. She says that her many years as an educator in the United States and abroad have been put to good use, and her age has proved to be an asset.
Cheal says that she did not have a problem working with the younger volunteers in the Peace Corps. In fact, she says, older volunteers like herself bring a perspective that adds to the younger ones' energy and new ideas.
"I think people who are older complement that with the years of experience they have and the knowledge they bring, and sometimes, we can be seen as being more credible immediately because of the color of our hair," she said.
Peace Corps director Ronald Tschetter says the agency benefits from the experience and credibility that older people bring to its programs abroad.
Tschetter says the average age of the Peace Corps volunteer today is 27 and the bulk of recruiting is done on college campuses. But, he says, people age 50 and over now make up five percent of the total number of volunteers, and he would like that percentage to increase.
"We're trying to attract more of what we call the baby boomer generation," he noted. "These are 50-plus-year-old people that are nearing retirement, and this is just a wonderful way for them to provide a real meaningful service for two years."
Volunteers serve for two years, living and working alongside the citizens of their host nations. Whether they work on education, health, or business development projects, Tschetter says all volunteers, no matter their age, study the language of their host country and respect the local culture. He says the Peace Corps, a government agency that reports to the White House, goes only to nations that ask for its assistance and does not have any involvement in U.S. policy.
Speaking to foreign correspondents in New York, Tschetter said there are only two requirements for joining the Peace Corps. Volunteers must be U.S. citizens and 18 years of age or older. There are almost 8,000 volunteers spread out over the globe today.
Tschetter says there is no "top limit" on age and he hopes more and more older people will be encouraged to volunteer.
"They're a rich resource," he said. "These people have now 30 and 35 years of professional experience that they can bring. They bring a certain maturity level. When you have 30 years of experience, you look at things a little differently."
Volunteer Beryl Cheal says she is looking forward to another two-year posting with the Peace Corps. She says that this time she would like to go to Africa, where the agency serves in 25 nations.
"Hopefully in Africa, if the timing is right," she said. "If it isn't in Africa, it will be some other place and it will be an adventure and I'll be able to make a contribution no matter where it is."
The world is Cheal's oyster. With projects in 73 different nations, Cheal could be contributing for years to come.