SEATTLE - The Peace Corps is reshaping its youth-focused culture as part of a national push to attract retirement-age volunteers.
Almost every facet of the federal agency will be affected: recruitment messages, medical screenings, language training, country placements.
The goal is to boost the ranks of volunteers 50 and older from 5 percent of the 7,749 Americans in the Peace Corps to 15 percent in the next two years.
The average age of volunteers is 27, but the oldest is 81.
Baby boomers are a "very rich American resource," mature, highly skilled, educated and willing to give back to society, said Ron Tschetter, newly appointed Peace Corps director.
"We can offer them an opportunity to do that in a very unique way and have meaningful results for them and the host country," he said.
Linda Perry, 64, returned home to Monroe in 2004 after three years with the Peace Corps in Bulgaria.
"The older person can set a good example for the younger volunteers on how to really remember the Peace Corps is a 24/7 job," she said.
Regardless of age, volunteers will be expected to serve 27 months and will receive the same benefits. And older individuals can still be placed in nearly any country that needs their skills.
But in the initial phase of the new effort, most older volunteers will be placed in nine test countries: Ukraine, Romania, Thailand, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Cameroon, Lesotho and South Africa.
Peace Corps senior staff members in those countries will evaluate and offer feedback on the satisfaction and progress of older volunteers.
A survey of older Peace Corps volunteers is influencing some of the changes. In it, some reported feeling intimidated by younger volunteers during language training.
"I think the older volunteers did have more trouble with the language," Perry said. "Most of the people in my age group spoke much less Bulgarian than I did."
But failure to learn the language really did not impede their ability to serve, she said.
Older volunteers also said they sometimes felt patronized by instructors trying to impart regulations - such as a rule that a bike rider should always wear a helmet. And they would like to have another 50-plus volunteer accessible for support and camaraderie in the same country.