In 1988, Phyllis Ross was running a Lake Shasta campground and wondering to herself, "What am I going to do with all this energy and years left?"
Her husband, with whom she had bought the property a decade before, had died the previous year. Her children were grown. "So one day, I'm reading the little Redding paper and I saw an article about seniors volunteering for the Peace Corps," she said, "and I thought, 'Well! What about that?' "
Ross, then 66, sold the campground the next year, packed a few bags and joined a graying wave of Peace Corps troopers--in her case heading off for two years in Tanzania, Africa.
Since President John F. Kennedy issued his initial call for public service in 1963, the image of a Peace Corps volunteer has been that of a young man or woman fresh out of college, short on real-world skills and long on starry-eyed idealism. That remains largely true--more than two-thirds of the volunteers are between ages 20 and 29. But as the federal program has aged, so have its workers, 14% of whom are now 40 or older.
Older volunteers are favored commodities in many host countries, even if, as Ross found, their presence often raises eyebrows. Word of her age preceded Ross to Tanzania, where the average life span is 52 years.
"When the father of my host family saw me, he said he was so glad to see I could walk," she said. As a vigorous, white, elderly woman, she proved such a curiosity that people would trek in from the fields to peer at her.
At the same time, older workers like Ross tend to command more respect and prestige in traditional cultures that value the wisdom of age, said Jack P. Hogan, the Peace Corps' acting director.
Many host countries also have discovered the value of volunteers with extensive work experience. They often request those with skills in such areas as business, farming, or environmental education, Hogan said.
Joana McFarland, now 55, was able to draw on her professional past when she started an educational foundation for street children in the Dominican Republic. Three years ago, McFarland left a $50,000 corporate marketing job and a comfortable life in Laguna Beach for the Peace Corps and the unknown.
"I wanted to open up my world a little more, to be a little more concerned with people rather than products," she said.
In the country's second-largest city of Santiago, McFarland helped organize the foundation, created its promotional materials and worked on educating the community about the problems of street children.
She found herself using many of the skills she had honed over the years, although that is not to suggest all her experience translated neatly to the Peace Corps. In fact, in some respects, corporate life was a poor primer.
"Well, for one, time is not the same," she recalled. "If you schedule a meeting for four or five o'clock, people may start to wander in about 6:30."
Some of the middle-aged and elderly are drawn to the Peace Corps by the opportunity to help, some by the prospects of advancing their careers and some, like Susan Ross, by both.
Hit hard by the recession, Ross (no relation to Phyllis Ross) will leave June 9 for Botswana for what she hopes will lead to a step up in her career.
Ross, 45, learned last year that, because of economic downsizing and reorganization, her job with the state park service was about to disappear. Her dream of working for the National Park Service was frustrated by her lack of federal government experience.
When the Corps offered her a job in park development, she realized it was exactly the kind of exciting, challenging work she had wanted. In addition, returning Peace Corps volunteers are automatically eligible to compete for federal jobs like the ones she covets at the Interior Department.
So she sold her home, held a huge garage sale, and dropped off her black labrador, Job, with her parents in Ohio.
"It's like stepping off a cliff, and you might as well go head first or feet first, it doesn't really matter," she said. "It looks like the perfect thing to do, and I just trust that it will be all right."
When Ross returns, however, she may find that stepping back into American society is not as easy as it is for younger volunteers. And after living in much simpler, more relaxed cultures, older workers say, it is almost impossible to return to the life you left behind.
James Gibbons said his stint in the Peace Corps taught him that happiness has to do with things you do, not things you have.
Gibbons, now 47, moved from Oceanside to the West Indies with the Peace Corps in 1990.
Searching for the meaning of life, love and relationships, Gibbons believed he found it on the island of Antigua. The two-year change of scenery, he said, put him more in touch with his own needs and desires.
Today, Gibbons is back in Oceanside, teaching at Palomar College while planning to open a private, general psychology practice. He works out at the gym four times a week, takes guitar lessons, bowls three days a week and spends "lots of time" with his grandchildren.
"I don't think I would have had the courage to do what makes me happy" before joining the Peace Corps, he said.