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Heeding the call, decades later

Amid hard times at home, older baby boomers give Peace Corps a chance.

Eileen Marin says her time in Armenia was "part of a journey that started years before."
Eileen Marin says her time in Armenia was "part of a journey that started years before."Read moreJUAN GARCIA / Dallas Morning News

DALLAS - Eileen Marin didn't think "change" only when she listened to President-elect Barack Obama's recent endorsement of the Peace Corps.

She had heard the call half a century ago, when President John F. Kennedy used similar words to inspire baby boomers such as Marin, some of whom are just now acting on them.

Peace Corps applications have increased sharply as economic uncertainty looms, a nascent administration takes shape, and a generation of retirees turns to overseas service in its twilight years.

The increase in applications includes a spike from among baby boomers - those born in the couple of decades after World War II - as members of this generation choose to fulfill a volunteerism mission statement they heard growing up.

"It was part of a journey that started years before," said Marin, 61, who sold her Richardson, Texas, home when she joined the Peace Corps and moved to Armenia two years ago.

She said her "body returned" to Texas in August, but her thoughts linger on the daily rituals of the rural country and its inhabitants.

She has wrapped herself in the transitional guilt that often occurs when returning to First World affluence. Overstocked shelves of laundry detergent make her grimace.

People over 50 now make up 5 percent of the Peace Corps' 7,876 volunteers and 9.2 percent of applicants, the highest percentage in at least the last three years.

"A lot of seniors say they've had great jobs, a good life, but they don't just want to retire and sit around," said Linda Tucker, a local recruiter who served in Africa with the Peace Corps while in her 50s.

"I'm a Kennedy kid, so it was always in the back of my mind to do Peace Corps," said the Dallas resident, now 61.

Tucker assumed an age limit existed until she discovered that basic life training and an established skill set are what the Peace Corps craves.

"A lot of them have been in the workforce for 30 years," she said. "They are very flexible and bring a lot of experience."

But with an $18 million shortfall over this year and next, the agency expects to cut back at home and abroad, trimming new-volunteer positions by 300 to 400 next year.

The Bush administration has requested $343.5 million for next year, just 4 percent more than the 2008 congressionally approved budget of $330 million.

This has not stopped the applications, which have increased 16 percent this year, the biggest leap in five years.

Converse-clad students and gray-haired women packed a South Dallas classroom at a recent information session. One commercial real estate agent had been laid off. Another attendee was about to graduate from college with a fashion-merchandising degree and few job prospects.

Something beyond economics motivated J. Tom Ashley 3d, 66, to accept an assignment teaching environmental education in Romania starting in May. The semiretired McAllen, Texas, architect said he had been "getting a bit bored" and was "ready to roll up my sleeves and get back into working mode."