Published June 10. 2012 4:00AM
When Tamara England-Zelenski applied to the Peace Corps two years ago, at age 57, she saw the assignment as a way to give back, travel and experience a different way of life.
She thought her experiences in life and as a book editor might be an asset to the organization, which sends volunteers around the globe to promote world peace and friendship.
"I had considered Peace Corps when I was in my early 20s, but I felt that I had no specific skills to offer, other than speaking French. I figured they wanted specialists and I was a generalist, so I never applied," said England-Zelenski, of Madison, Wis. "And I am still a generalist, but one with a lifetime of experience in different areas and businesses."
As it turns out, England-Zelenski was just what the Peace Corps was looking for. The organization has begun recruiting older volunteers, recognizing their experience, maturity and commitment to volunteering. Also their sheer numbers: Baby Boomers make up about 25 percent of the U.S. population, and volunteer more than any other age group.
In November, the Peace Corps announced a partnership with AARP, the advocacy group for people 50 and older.
It's "a natural fit," said Kristina Edmunson, deputy communications director for the Peace Corps. "Older Americans who serve with Peace Corps come with a wealth of life experiences, creativity and professional development that can help make an instant impact in a community overseas."
The average age of Peace Corps volunteers is still much younger: 28. Seven percent are older than 50.
Older Americans can serve a traditional two-year period or take part in the Peace Corps Response program, which offers shorter assignments. The Peace Corps expanded the Response program in January to include volunteers with at least 10 years of work experience and certain language skills.
Older volunteers work on the same projects as younger volunteers - including HIV/AIDS education, teaching English as a second language, agriculture, environmental awareness and more, Edmunson said.
"All Peace Corps volunteers, regardless of age, go through the same health, screening and suitability process," she said.
Beth Dailey, a senior advisor for AARP, said 60 percent of the organization's 37 million members engage in volunteer activities. Like the Peace Corps, Dailey said, "Volunteering is at the core of what we do."
Over the years, members have told AARP that they like donating time to worthy causes because it lets them contribute to their communities and stay busy. "They don't want to work full-time, but they still want to stay active in that community and give back," Dailey said.
Baby Boomers are the best-educated generation to retire from the nation's workforce, so they have a lot to offer in terms of talents and knowledge, said Dr. Erwin Tan, a gerontologist and the director of the Corporation for National and Community Service's Senior Corp program, a federal agency that engages seniors and others in service opportunities.
England-Zelenski has a bachelor's degree in French and worked for nearly 20 years as a children's book editor. She decided to pursue the Peace Corps after her husband died of cancer in 2009. A year ago, the Peace Corps sent her to Armenia to teach English at a branch of Yerevan State University.
Her professional career has been both a help and a hindrance in a developing country, she said.
"When one has had a successful professional life, accustomed to getting things done in a relatively efficient way, trying to do that in a developing country and in another language can be very frustrating," she said. "Moderating expectations is pretty important."
Still, the rewards outweigh the frustrations, she said. She has enjoyed sharing a home with an Armenian family, conversing with young Armenian students and learning the country's culture.
"There is a real gift in being able to step into another culture in a way that I would otherwise probably not be able to do," she said. "Gratitude is a word that has driven much of this journey. Gratitude for what I have been given made me want to be of service. And being here, hoping that I am serving these students as they seek to improve their English, I am ever more grateful for this experience."
Bonnie Lee Black, who was 51 when she joined the Peace Corps in 1996, still savors the memory of her time in Gabon, Africa.
"I never put it far out of my mind," said Black, of Taos, N.M. "It's still very much alive."
The former caterer loved teaching nutrition classes to young mothers and hosting cooking lessons in her home. She also enjoyed the camaraderie of the Peace Corps.
"I didn't feel old and they didn't make me feel old," she said. "We were all in this together."
Black, who wrote a book about her experiences, tries to encourage others to serve.
"I hope and pray other people don't let themselves be sidelined," she said. "Don't think it's over at 50-something or 60-something. The older we are, the more we have to give back."