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Never too old for the Peace Corps

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TESS VIGELAND: We talked earlier in the show about some of the creative ways by which one woman is dealing with unemployment. Here's another option: Join the Peace Corps. You may think to yourself, isn't that just for the young un's? Nope.

Marketplace's Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.


Nancy Marshall Genzer: President Kennedy focused on college students when he started the Peace Corps. He made one of his first appeals for service in October of 1960 at the University of Michigan.

John F. Kennedy in archival tape: How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? How many of you are willing to work in the foreign service and spend your lives traveling around the world?

Teri Garland Bolinger was in first grade when she first heard Kennedy's call to serve -- but she didn't get around to answering it until she was in her 50s. Garland Bolinger spent just over two years with the Peace Corps in Ukraine. She came back to the U.S. last year.

Teri Garland Bolinger: I just think it's really important to try to give back to life. Life has been very generous and good to me.

Garland Bolinger left her job as a chief financial officer for a nonprofit to join the Peace Corps. In Ukraine, she was called a "community development business educator." She ran English language programs on work force development. She worked with a medical college on HIV awareness. She taught English in Ukrainian elementary schools. Oh, and she taught international finance full time at a Ukrainian university.

In the U.S., Garland Bolinger's time wouldn't come cheap. She has a master's in finance and years of corporate experience. How do recent college grads compete with that on their Peace Corps applications? They don't.

Rosie Mauk is the Peace Corps's associate director for volunteer recruitment.

Rosie Mauk: If we had a young person and somebody with more experiences, and they each qualified for that country, absolutely, we would choose the person that had more experience to go over the younger person.

But Mauk says the Peace Corps doesn't have that choice as often as it would like. The Corps started a major recruiting drive for older Americans in 2007. It was aiming for 15 percent of its ranks to be at least 50 years old by 2009. Only 6 percent of its volunteers today are over 50. It's partnered with the AARP to get the word out that there's no age limit for volunteers.

Mimi Castaldi heads the AARP's volunteer arm. She says countries are asking the Peace Corps for older volunteers.

Mimi Castaldi: They have the ability to look back at what they've learned during their working career and bring that to the Peace Corps. So they bring a different level of maturity than a younger volunteer might. Countries are looking for life experiences that these volunteers can bring with them.

There are also cultural reasons countries want older volunteers. Elders are more respected in some cultures. Young Peace Corps volunteers have to work harder for that respect. The Peace Corps's Rosie Mauk says Thailand is a case in point.

Mauk: Their government has asked us to look for more older Americans, so, absolutely, in some of our countries, in their cultures, it's seen as someone with much more respect, perhaps, given by everybody in the villages.

Garland Bolinger says there were 20 older volunteers in her group of 74. She says the older volunteers mixed well with the college kids, except for one thing.

Garland Bolinger: Now, I will say that perhaps I don't stay up as late or party as hard at this point in my life, as I did a number of years ago, but I think we all had very good relationships.

Rusty partying skills aside, many older volunteer are held back by other life experiences, like college tuition or a mortgage payment. Maybe they're waiting to retire. Those weren't issues for Garland Bolinger. She sold her house and car. She says one of her biggest problems was dealing with friends trying to talk her out of the Peace Corps.

Garland Bolinger: I did have a number of people tell me that I was making a very crazy decision to just step out of my career and join the Peace Corps for two years. I think, basically, I just explained that I didn't share that belief.

Now Garland Bolinger is getting a Ph.D. in public administration. She wants to become qualified to teach anywhere in the world and maybe go to work for the Peace Corps.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace Money.

Featured in: Marketplace Money

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