Peace Corps: Older volunteers a valuable asset

  • By Kimberly Hilden SCBJ Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday, September 2, 2008 1:29pm

About 10 years ago, Neal Hansen and his wife, Judy, were ready for a life change.

Both in their mid-50s, they had experienced career success — he, as the owner of an institutional derivatives brokerage firm, she as a business consultant — but weren’t necessarily ready to do the retirement thing.

So the two Puget Sound residents began exploring their options. What they found was the Peace Corps.Created in 1961 under the Kennedy administration, the Peace Corps’ mission is to promote world peace and understanding through volunteerism in developing countries. To that end, the federal agency over the decades has recruited and sent more than 187,000 volunteers to 139 host countries, where they have focused their efforts on serving the needs of the communities into which they are invited.

For the Hansens, that meant using their years of business experience to help economic development efforts in the Slovak Republic where, from 1998 to 2000, Neal served as a senior business adviser, helping former Communist-oriented businesses adapt to Western business standards. At the same time, Judy taught classes in marketing and business practices at a local university there.

“I worked for what was, in essence, a regional business information office, like an SBA (office) here in Seattle,” Neal Hansen said. “… Back at that time, the leftovers from the old Communist rule was that everyone agreed to everything you wanted — but didn’t necessarily follow through. We talked about follow through and customer service and things like realizing cash-flow consequences.”

Just as rewarding as the volunteer work were the friendships he and his wife made as well as the experience of being immersed in a new country and culture, he said.

“After about six months (being) in Peace Corps — three months of training and three months in the location — it just came to me that I was walking down a street in a foreign town in a foreign country,” Neal Hansen said. “I had learned enough of the language … to get by on a day-to-day basis. It brought a real sense of satisfaction.

“I would say that it is possible for old dogs to learn new tricks — or languages,” he said, chuckling.

For the Peace Corps, older volunteers are viewed as a valuable asset, said Laura Lartigue, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“They provide a wealth of experience in their respective areas of expertise and are usually quite poised since Peace Corps is really something they know they want to do at that point in their lives,” she said via e-mail. “They also add an extra dimension to diversity within the Peace Corps since they usually come into Peace Corps having done so many different things during their lives and careers.”

During the past three years, the Peace Corps has stepped up efforts to recruit older Americans, developing marketing materials geared to audiences 50 years old and older, expanding outreach to seniors in its regional recruitment offices and attending AARP conferences.

According to Peace Corps, of the 7,749 Americans currently volunteering, 5 percent (382) of volunteers are 50 or older. The oldest volunteer currently serving is 80 years old.

The Peace Corps presents an opportunity that many “baby boomers and above” have not necessarily considered, but maybe should, Lartigue said.

Along with the thrill of a new locale and the knowledge that they’re working to make a difference, volunteers serving in Peace Corps receive a living allowance as well as medical and dental coverage. The cost of transportation to and from the host country also is covered, and transition funds are provided after volunteers complete their 27 months of service.

In general, serving in Peace Corps does not affect a retiree’s Social Security benefits or civil or military service pension, the agency said, noting that the living and readjustment allowances “are usually not large enough to alter one’s benefits.”

For Neal Hansen, who is now a Peace Corps recruiter, that’s one of the selling points of volunteering as a senior.

“If you’re getting retirement or Social Security, there’s 27 months when your money can be going into a bank or investment account. … It’s not a financial drain; it’s more of a financial bonus for an older person,” he said.

And another selling point: “You get invited to nicer parties after you return, because people like to hear your stories.”

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