Arts, Culture & Media

Graying of the Peace Corps

Peace Corps volunteer, Keith Keyser is one busy man. He's built a chicken house to employ women with HIV; helped start a school library; designed a medical records database; and today he's taking a mentally ill woman get her prescriptions at the local hospital.

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Not bad for a man pushing 70. At a time when many retirees are working on their golf swing or doting on grand kids, Keyser is realizing a lifelong goal.

"One day it just dawned on me: I'm free. I have no commitments. It is time to do the Peace Corps. It's something I had always wanted to do and just had never had the freedom to do it before," Keyser says.

When President John F. Kennedy first raised the call for volunteers fifty years ago, Keyser wanted to answer. But he was a young married father, far too tied down to go running off to the ends of the earth. Waiting half a century didn't dim his enthusiasm though. In fact, Keyser says his age is improving the experience.

"I think that my ability to be patient, to be tolerant would have been a lot different than it is now," Keyser says, "so I suspect it would have been a lot harder to have the same kind of experience I'm having now."

Waiting those 50 years also means Keyser brings a career's worth of experience to his posting; in his case as an IT manager for a major utility in Colorado.

Older volunteers "are important not only to help us meet some of the scarce skills, the high-level skills that our countries ask for," says Peace Corps Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radelit, "but they also provide a valuable resource for our younger volunteers; they serve as mentors for them."

About seven percent of Peace Corps' nearly 9,000 volunteers are over 50-years-old. That figure's only increased marginally in recent years despite recruiting efforts targeted at seniors. So the Peace Corps is stepping up its relationship to the biggest organization of older Americans out there — the AARP.

Under a recently announced arrangement, the two groups are working together to connect older people with volunteer opportunities. AARP's Barb Quaintance says Peace Corps can have a lot of appeal for people hitting retirement.

"You know, you're looking for your 'what's next, as we call it at AARP. Volunteering in this kind of a way can be really, really significant."

And it's not just the Peace Corps that's getting interested in older Americans, says Quaintance.

"The whole service world, really only in the last few years has begun to kind of say, 'wow, wait a second here. We've been thinking about kids when we talk about service. But what about all these amazing people who've said, 'yeah, just ask me, and I'll sign up too?'"

Of course, jaunting off to the ends of the earth might give some aging people pause. There things like mortgages and Social Security payments to sort out and about a third of older volunteers are married, although the Peace Corps doesn't know how many of those couples go overseas together. The organization also has a long list of answers on its website to frequently asked questions about health and insurance.

But those worries apparently never bothered Keith Keyser. Sitting in his house in Ethiopia, surrounded by photos of his world travels and the people he's met here, Keyser has trouble picturing life as a retiree.

"Quite honestly," he says, "if I go back to the States, what would I do? You know, if I come back to the States, I'd feel a little bit frivolous. Whereas here, there's so much that needs to be done."

The Peace Corps, Keyser says, gives him the ability to do those things. Maybe, he jokes, he'll just spend the rest of his life as a volunteer. It's the kind of passion the Peace Corps is hoping to harness in more older Americans.

This reporting from Ethiopia was supported by the International Reporting Project.

  • Peace_Corps_pic1HEADER.jpg

    69-year-old Peace Corps volunteer Keith Keyser contemplates a chicken house he helped construct in the Ethiopian town of Finote Selam. Local women with HIV will raise the chickens to generate income. (Photo: Megan Verlee)

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    Keyser has branched out far beyond his assigned projects during his time in Finote Selam, including helping many of the town's mentally ill residents get on medication. The effort started after Keyser met Fana, a disturbed woman who was living on the str

  • Peace_Corps_pic4.jpg

    During his two years as a volunteer, Keyser has become a sort of jack-of-all-trades in town. On an afternoon walk, HIV-positive women ask him to photograph their maize harvest for the NGO that's supporting them. (Photo: Megan Verlee)