Off to Africa : At 78, Peace Corps Volunteer Takes On a New Continent

Times Staff Writer

Olive Green's 1926 high school yearbook characterized her as the student most likely to become a missionary to China.

Although the idea seemed ridiculous to her at the time, her classmates were not far off the mark.

Green, a West Covina resident who will turn 79 next month, will leave Friday for Africa on her second assignment with the Peace Corps.

"I'm determined to make life worthwhile for someone else," said Green, an energetic, petite woman.

25 Months in Philippines

She said the upcoming trip to Sierra Leone, a country on the west coast of Africa, "looks a little bit harder" than the 25 months she spent as a Peace Corps worker in the Philippines between 1978 and 1980. "But I'm sure I'll love it," she said.

The trip to Africa will mark more than 40 years of volunteer work for Green, who has received a number of awards and commendations for her activities.

"People are my glue," Green said. "Volunteer work holds me together."

It was after the death of her husband in 1976 that Green decided to take her volunteer work beyond the traditional hospital and convalescent home corridors and into distant lands.

Green, who was living in Pittsburgh at the time, said she began contemplating the concept of peace and the fact that her name, Olive, is associated with peace.

"Prior to that, it (her name) didn't ring any bells because I was Mrs. George Green and my husband called me Ollie," she said.

'A Crush on Peace'

"I sort of got a crush on peace and started cutting things out in newspapers that had 'peace' in them. . . . Then my nephew suggested I go into the Peace Corps."

At the age of 69, Green applied to the Peace Corps, starting a process that usually takes six to nine months. She filled out a 12-page application, passed a physical and was interviewed and placed in a pool of applicants being considered for community service positions in other countries.

Her age was not a problem, she said.

"Age is an asset in the Peace Corps," said Joseph Permetti, a spokesman for the Los Angeles office of the Peace Corps. "In many Third World countries age is respected. . . . She's seen a lot and experienced a lot and when she goes up and talks to mothers about their children she will have the experience of raising a child and they will know it."

Permetti said that more than 500 of about 6,000 Peace Corps volunteers around the world are 50 or older, but not many are as old as Green.

Because she was told that previous community service might improve her chances of being chosen, Green volunteered in late 1976 to help with Pittsburgh's Meals on Wheels program. "I was assigned to five people who were shut-ins and I would take them meals once a week," she said.

In 1977, Green was given a Peace Corps assignment in Jamaica, but that program was canceled. The next year she went to the Philippines, where she spent 25 months as a health worker in Jasaan, a village on one of the southern Philippine islands.

'Gingerbread House'

Although most people in Jasaan live in huts, Green lived with two older women who had electricity and a television set in their home. It wasn't fancy, she said, but "I called their house the gingerbread house because it was made of concrete" rather than the natural materials used for most construction in the area.

She added that she had little difficulty adjusting to the native customs and "got used to eating fresh fish for breakfast."

"I was just one of the family," she said. Before long, she was attending graduations, birthday parties and community celebrations.

As a health worker, Green helped set up feeding centers for malnourished children and worked as a nutrition adviser with the National Nutrition Council.

She also periodically set out on foot to barangays, or mountain villages, in search of malnourished children. Shortly after returning to the United States, she received a letter from the Peace Corps worker who replaced her.

"Your hikes to the barangays are legendary," said the letter.

Villagers also remember her for persuading the governor of the province to dress up as a banana as part of an effort to stress the values of a nutritional diet. She portrayed a coconut.

Pennsylvania Native

Green, who was born and reared in Punxsutawney, Pa., about 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, found that in Jasaan older people are respected more than in the United States.

In the same manner that her husband's death motivated her to go into the Peace Corps, the death of two of her four children in the late 1940s prompted Green to get more actively involved in volunteer projects.

One son died in 1943 of a cerebral hemorrhage, and five years later, a daughter died of Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer that was incurable at the time.

The deaths "kind of melted the glue, and then I got it back together when I did some volunteer work," Green said.

"You just want to take your mind off of yourself and what has happened," she said. "After a while it grew into a pattern of volunteerism."

Between 1948 and 1963, Green worked as a volunteer for the Salvation Army, teaching unwed mothers to sew. "That's when I really had the heavy heart because of the death of my daughter," Green said.

She also was active in the Salvation Army auxiliary and collected donations for the organization, including cloth for the sewing classes.

Organized Church Bazaars

Other volunteer work included organizing church bazaars and Girl Scout fund-raising drives, and working as an aide at a hospital in Pittsburgh for about four years in the early 1960s.

"If there was someone who wanted to find out about a family member in surgery, I would be the contact to find out how they were," she said of her duties at the hospital.

Green spent some of her time in the Philippines in a hospital, not as a volunteer but as a patient. She was admitted for several days in 1979 with pneumonia. But most of the time in the Philippines, she said, she felt good and did not have any major health problems.

Green returned to the United States in 1980, and moved in 1981 to West Covina to be near her son, Leonard Green, 47. Since then she has continued her pattern of volunteerism.

"I never really thought about it. I just worked and went ahead and did what I had to," she said.

She took a part-time job working in the office of the hospice program at the Inter-Community Medical Center in Covina. After six months she left that job because the program needed a full-time employee, but she continued to work as a volunteer for the hospice program, visiting terminally ill patients. She would help them around the house and become friends with them.

"She's a very giving lady and seems to have a deep sense of caring for the well being of other individuals," said Laurie Pope, director of hospice volunteers.

Visiting Nurses

In 1983, Green began volunteering with the Visiting Nurses Assn. of the East San Gabriel Valley, a nonprofit group in Covina subsidized by United Way. "They wanted a volunteer, called me and I said sure I'll do it," Green said.

She made calls to six people each day as part of the association's Telefriend program, designed to reach out to elderly people who are confined to their homes.

At the same time, Green started commuting twice a week by bus from her home in West Covina to the Federal Building in Westwood to help out around the Peace Corps office. She would leave her apartment at 7 a.m., work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and arrive back home at dinner time.

As a result of her renewed contact with Peace Corps workers, her adventuresome spirit took over and she decided in 1984 to apply to go overseas again.

She first asked to go to Grenada, an island in the West Indies which was invaded by the United States in October, 1983.

"We just made a little trouble for Grenada and I thought I was missing something," she said.

Green got the Grenada assignment in early 1985, but was unable to go then because of high blood pressure. By the time the Sierra Leone opportunity came up, she was able and willing to accept it.

In Sierra Leone she will be a community health worker, submitting reports on the health and educational needs of the communities to which she will be assigned. Although she will not administer medical services, Green will advise mothers on child care, sanitation and nutrition.

According to the Peace Corps manual, Green is likely to be posted to an area without electricity, running water or toilets. But she says she is not worried about that.

"It's just another adjustment you have to make," she said. "It will take me back to my childhood, when I would visit the farms and go to my aunt's outhouse."

For Green, going to Sierra Leone is another attempt to bring peace to the world.

"For the past 10 years it's been peace first," she said. "If you don't care, you get burdened down with your own pain. . . . Caring is the practice of peace."

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