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Volunteers give the Peace Corps a chance

The Peace Corps turns 40 this month, as older volunteers join the ranks in S. Africa.

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In this small town at the edge of the Kruger National Park, Mary Jo Reimer, a small woman with short-cropped white hair, is addressed with the honorary term "gogo," or grandmother. It is a sign of respect for the Californian, and an honorific that an increasing number of Peace Corps volunteers can claim.

Three months ago, Ms. Reimer abandoned her comfortable life as a hospice nurse in Los Angeles to spend two years as a Peace Corps volunteer at a home for street children and HIV-positive orphans in South Africa. Her mission is to turn Peace Haven, founded by a woman who 10 years ago opened her door to children in need, into a financially viable nongovernmental organization.

"I'm not 23, I'm not a vegetarian, and I don't wear Birkenstocks," Reimer says with a laugh. "But I think I bring experience that will help do my job here."

As the Peace Corps celebrates its 40th birthday this year, the stereotypical left-leaning, 20-something idealist who defined the corps for many years is giving way to a new type of volunteer: retired professionals like Reimer, and middle-aged, mid-career individuals who want a break from life in the fast lane.

These older volunteers, a few of whom are in their 80s, bring a whole new set of skills and attitudes to the corps, and are changing the kind of work it does. Their involvement is making possible programs, like Reimer's, that help build local institutions. One former nurse volunteering in Malawi, for example, is helping to build the country's first hospice.

When President John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps in 1961, most of those who answered his call were idealistic young college graduates. During the first decade of the organization's existence, 95 percent of the more than 54,000 people who served were in their 20s, and most of those were sent as teachers. Back then, only a handful of retirees - fewer than 1 percent of all volunteers, signed on.


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