From New York, With Love


A blind girl at a center for disabled children approaches the older woman from the United States. The girl wants to learn an American dance.

The woman puts in a jazz tape by Glenn Miller and begins moving to the beat, reaching for the girl's hands.

"She couldn't see what I was doing, so she bent down and put her hands on my feet, to feel how I moved them," said Mercedes Anderson, a big smile on her face. "Then she felt my knees, my hips and my shoulders, and then started to dance!"

Anderson, an 80-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Uniondale, N.Y., is living life anew through the children at the Center of Rehabilitation and Special Education for the Blind, which opens its doors to disabled and abandoned children.

In her own inimitable way, Anderson is trying to reach an autistic boy who long ago shut out the world, helping students with their English homework, teaching a blind girl to dance.

"I am one of these people who likes to be needed," she said.

Her days begin like that of a typical American career woman, except this is Cochabamba, the third largest city in South America's poorest nation.

She is up at 6:45 a.m., heats water for coffee on the gas stove in her studio apartment, eats a breakfast of eggs and bread, and takes her daily vitamins.

Shortly before 8:30, she grabs her backpack for the 10-minute walk to the center, where she is assigned to work in the library. Her duties go beyond organizing files in Braille, which she can decipher by sight and is learning by touch. Each day, she also gives her no-nonsense yet loving attention to the 60 children, most of whom live at the center during the week.

At least 15 children at the center were abandoned, a common trend in Bolivia, where families of disabled children often "don't know what to do, can't afford it or can't be bothered," said Anderson, who joined the staff in April 2000.

The abandoned children spend weekends at the center, while the others visit their families or stay with part-time foster parents.

Anderson is one of the four oldest volunteers serving in the Peace Corps today; all are age 80.

She keeps in touch with relatives through daily e-mails from an Internet cafe, attends monthly book club meetings with other Peace Corps volunteers and sets aside time for physical therapy to relieve the lower back pain that developed last year when a bus she was riding in hit a pothole. She was hospitalized for two weeks. The Peace Corps covered her medical bills.

A native of Panama, she plays the piano and loves jazz, but nothing stirs her passions like dancing. Even in her 50s, Anderson was taking modern dance classes.

"Mercedes knows every dance from every decade!" said her friend Debbie Hurst, the librarian at the Peace Corps office here.

She nicknamed Anderson "the dancing queen" after watching her 34-year-old husband and Anderson dance together at a party. "Sweat was pouring down his face, but there wasn't a drop on Mercedes," Hurst said.

Anderson has always been a free spirit.

A 17-year career with the United Nations took her to Austria, Switzerland and Congo. She traveled around the world twice. She worked for Hofstra University on Long Island until 1997.

"When I actually retired, I found a resignation letter that I had written 11 years back that I never turned in," she said. "I just couldn't make up my mind to stop working, because I thought, 'What am I going to do?' "

She found her answer in a television ad for the Peace Corps.

"When mother told me that she was going to Bolivia, I thought that she was crazy," said her son, Ray Anderson, 60, who also lives in Uniondale. "Why would a sane person of 79 years want to go traipsing off to a Third World country?"

And yet the family shouldn't have been surprised.

"She's pragmatic, and believes that you do what you have to do, so shut up and do it," said her niece, Renee Bermudez-Anderson of Las Vegas. "She knows what she wants and will make the sacrifices."

In Cochabamba, 250 miles from the capital of La Paz, Anderson has sacrificed black cherry ice cream.

"Ice cream is passable here--it's cold," said Anderson, who during a recent visit home was welcomed with a case of Breyer's black cherry.

"I came back here and had a cone and said, 'Oh no, this is horrible,' " she said.

But little else is lacking in Anderson's life. The stipend she receives from the Peace Corps is more than adequate for her needs. After $65 a month in rent, plus utilities, $50 covers the cost of her monthly groceries and toiletries.

"I don't worry about what I'm not having," she said.

And she doesn't worry about life after her Peace Corps commitment ends in April.

"As long as I have health and strength, I can't sit down and say, 'Oh well, I'm old, and I'm retired, and this is where I belong,' " she said.

And so she works with Eddy, a 12-year-old autistic boy who hasn't spoken in the year since Anderson arrived at the center and walks like a wooden toy soldier.

Anderson has been playing her Glenn Miller and Irving Fields jazz tapes to work on Eddy's coordination. He has gone from not responding to the music in any measurable way to playing the rhythm with sticks and moving his head, shoulders and one foot to the beat.

"I see improvement in him," Anderson said. "I feel good about it. And eventually I'll make him stand up and learn a dance!"

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