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They've got experience, money -- now they want a challenge

  • Story Highlights
  • Five percent of Peace Corps volunteers are over the age of 50
  • Peace Corps has new Web section aimed at seniors
  • Organizations like Global Volunteers offer 1-3 week trips to foreign countries
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By Tiare Rath
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(LifeWire) -- From the minute Margaret Pratley heard about the Peace Corps in 1961, she was intrigued by the idea of volunteer service overseas.

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Margaret Pratley joined the Peace Corps when she was 60 years old.

But Pratley, a primary school teacher who taught in Germany after World War II, couldn't take off on an international adventure because she was busy raising her children.

Twenty-five years later, when her kids were grown, Pratley -- at age 60 -- attended a Peace Corps recruitment event and learned the organization she had admired for decades wasn't just for young Americans.

"In the [recruitment] video, some of the people I saw had gray hair. And I thought, 'Yeah!'" said Pratley, who lives in Berkeley, California.

Pratley, now 81, has since served three tours as a teacher in the Peace Corps, including stints in Lesotho, in southern Africa, from 1986 to 1988; in Sri Lanka, from 1990 to 1991; and in Thailand, from 2005 to 2007.

"What you're looking for when you're older [is] to be of value, to find something that you can do to make you feel worthwhile," Pratley said. "The Peace Corps, it gives you challenges. You can do a lot more than you had anticipated."

Attracting an older generation

Organizations like the Peace Corps are actively targeting older Americans and baby boomers for international volunteerism. Five percent of Peace Corps volunteers are over the age of 50, and in an effort to increase this percentage over the next three years, the Peace Corps recently launched a new section specifically aimed at older Americans on its Web site.

Older volunteers are a "rich American resource" for serving abroad, said Peace Corps spokeswoman Josie Duckett. "They have extreme value because of their skills."

All Peace Corps volunteers regardless of age must pass medical exams and serve for 27 months, including three months of language training.

Older volunteers are placed in areas that have good access to medical care and do not have extreme temperatures, Duckett said. Volunteers include veteran teachers and physicians working in fields such as HIV/AIDS prevention, the environment and community development.

The Peace Corps and other nonprofit organizations want to capitalize on older Americans' specific business skills in areas of interest to developing countries.

The International Executive Service Corps and the Citizens Development Corps, both based in Washington, send experienced businesspeople to assist businesses abroad. The International Executive Service Corps, founded in 1964 by financier and philanthropist David Rockefeller and other prominent Americans, has completed over 25,000 consultancies in more than 130 countries.

The Citizens Development Corps lists a number of programs on its Web site in countries including Azerbaijan, Russia, Thailand, Iraq and Angola -- where it has increased the capabilities of Angolan companies to contract with multinational oil firms by teaching them how to develop financial strategies, write business plans and bid on contracts.

These two international development organizations pay travel and accommodation expenses and a small stipend to the volunteers.

"We're always looking for people who can bring specific skills, knowledge and background and can hit the ground running in different countries," said Citizens Development Corps Chief Executive Officer Michael Levett.

Volunteer vacations

Volunteers are also looking for ways to do shorter stints outside the United States.

Since its inception in 1984, St. Paul, Minnesota-based Global Volunteers has attracted 22,000 volunteers, about 50 percent of whom are over 55, to the short-term volunteer vacations it organizes all over the world.

People on these trips usually spend from one to three weeks doing work like teaching English in Europe, caring for children in Africa or building schools in Latin America. Extended stays of up to 24 weeks are also available.

"Most of us have stopped chasing any kind of material goal ... because we've recognized that it doesn't make you happy," said Bud Philbrook, the 61-year-old co-founder and president of Global Volunteers.

Accommodations, on-site travel and program costs are covered, but volunteers must pay their way to and from the volunteer country or city. Volunteers work 40-hour weeks, and their trips are tax-deductible.

"As the boomers get older, they have more time and more availability and more resources," Philbrook said. "So we anticipate a continued growth in volunteers."

Margy Ross, a 48-year-old consultant from Eden Prairie, Minnesota, has taken her 12-year-old daughter on several Global Volunteer trips to a village in Costa Rica, where they have helped build a school and worked on irrigation projects.

"We live in the suburbs of Minneapolis," she said. "We don't do a lot of heavy lifting around here."

Ross hadn't volunteered internationally before their first trip a few years ago, but she developed a strong attachment to the community in Costa Rica's Monte Verde region and intends to take volunteer trips abroad well into her retirement.

"There's something really good mentally about a trip like this." she said. "Now we can't imagine a summer without it." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Tiare Rath is a freelance journalist who frequently writes on business and personal finance.

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