A Peace Corps Volunteer at 61

When Ken Shaw of San Francisco joined the Peace Corps in rural Zambia as an agriculture specialist, he was 61. “To say it was eye-opening is an understatement,” said the retired county health department employee and part-time actor, adding he was fulfilling “my old hippie dream.”

`It’s the greatest experience you’ll ever have,” the Hicksville, N.Y. native concluded. “Maybe not the most enjoyable, but the greatest.”

Surprises abounded. “You have to be able to squat and ride a bike,” he said bluntly of the hole-in-the-ground toilet and how he biked seven miles every morning and night from his host family’s property, where he stayed in a separate 400-square-foot house, to his job.

But the ebullient extrovert, one of about four per cent of Peace Corps volunteers age 50+ (the average age is 27), loved his stint in Africa, though he had never been abroad before. He found revelations at every turn. “I learned how to build a solar panel in my house, and how to handle a bull. I never thought I’d be eating caterpillars.” (He doesn’t recommend them.) 

“I also learned how well other countries treat their older people. We suck at it in the U.S. I was told before I went I’d be treated as a king as an older American man. Men would open doors for me – it was true.”

“The experience of older Americans is an asset to their host country, host community and fellow volunteers – as they share their expertise, they also learn about a new culture, language and way of life,” said Peace Corps spokeswoman Marjorie Wass.

Joining the Peace Corps

Peace Corps stints, which last for two years plus three months in-country training, are in six fields: Education (the biggest by far), health, agriculture, community economic development, youth development and environment. But shorter stints, three to 12 months, for professionals and technical experts exist in the Peace Corps Response program. Pick a country (or be sent to wherever the need is greatest), and your skills and preferences are matched to openings. Many gigs have no language requirement before you leave (in others, Spanish or any Romance language is required). Often, couples are accepted. 

There’s no upper age limit. Alice Carter, the oldest known volunteer, was 86 when she served in Morocco. “Each person is considered on a case-by-case basis. Some health conditions are more difficult to accommodate in countries where the Peace Corps is, but diabetes or a previous heart attack aren’t automatic turn-downs,” Wass explained. A comprehensive battery of medical and dental exams and tests is required. “The good news: if you’re not accepted, you’ll find out what’s wrong with you,” Shaw quipped. Vaccines (or proof of immunity) are required beforehand for measles, mumps, rubella, polio, chicken pox and tetanus (and, in certain countries, yellow fever).

Not everyone is cut out for Peace Corps service. Another 60+ man in Shaw’s group quit after one and a half week’s training in Zambia. “His host family didn’t speak English, and he kept bumping his head because the ceiling was so low. He started flipping out.”  

Apply here. For Peace Corps Response, apply here. See Shaw’s photos from Zambia here.

Interested?  Read these tips first

  • Talk to ex-volunteers and connect with Peace Corps recruiters online. Shaw attended events held by the Northern California Peace Corps Association, one of 185 affiliates of ex-volunteers of the National Peace Corps Association, located all over the country. Chances are your state or city has one. 
  • Do your homework so your expectations are realistic. Read about conditions in the country and region you’ll be living in. Expecting flush toilets in rural Africa is unrealistic. 
  • Be open to new experiences. You’ll eat foods you’ve never eaten and do things you’ve never done before. If you hate change, are set in your habits and think the American way is the only way, this isn’t for you.
  • Be friendly. Shaw said “Hi, how are you” in the local language to rural Zambians he passed. “They were thrilled and laughed in amazement.” It’s only polite to return any greeting you get. 
  • Expect to be stared at and watched. You may be the first white person, or American, or Black American locals have ever seen. You’re the exotic one. Remember, you’re representing America: Leave a good impression.

Photo: Ken Shaw

Sharon McDonnell is a freelance writer; see her work here.

 

4 comments
  • Martha Seymour
    REPLY

    I’m an additionalRPCV that has been around Senior Planet a long time.i was in Peace corps in
    Kennedys time and in the Committee of Returned Volunteers after that against the Vietnam War.A fellow traineeMaybe
    75 years old helped teach me how to climb cliffs in Puerto Rico those many years ago. Lately saw a friend from then-felt
    Like it was yesterday as friends tho different whole lives since.I gave my related paper archives to regional Peace Corps office who came and got them.Who knows,they might toss them.having that past helps me live well in NYC,such a great
    multicultural city.Using a rollator in these crowds is for the birds.I’ll be 80 soon.
    Maybe you have some paper archives that could be passed on somewhere useful NOW.

  • Masha Sora Soloveitchik
    REPLY

    Transfixed did I become before the story of Ken Shaw’s Peace Corps experience embarked upon at the age of sixty-one. As I grow older, have I come to deeply desire a world where simplification and ecological conservation take center stage. It seems one must embrace that sense of freedom to enter life with the rural people of Zambia, but what a breadth of freedom was Mr. Shaw able to achieve in the immediacy of nature while making his habitat among those who live at once so intimately in close proximity to the earth. As I mature as a writer, continuing to hone my craft, I try to apply myself in a similar manner. Even when cycling for work or errands through the five boroughs of the City of New York, I always find myself pondering ahead of time in what way might I allow myself to become engaged, whether or not it is representative of the essential — therefore, will this exchange grow to become one of necessity to the life of humanity and the planet? This mindset permits me to eagerly draw from a rejuvenating pool of continued sustenance? In the thrust toward eternity that all of us must one day make the transition toward, it is enhancing to reflect on one’s personal connection with generations both past and present through the recognition of race memory, that which we know from the deepest resources of our awareness, cultural efflorescence in the land where we reside, and history. Liberty means standing up to expose the powerfully corrupt as being exactly who they are in American citizenry’s principled constitutional right to conscientiously fight for a more perfect union. Ken Shaw is an admirable example of an individual who acts upon his desire to bring relief to the world’s suffering people. Kudos & Berakhot.

  • Eileen
    REPLY

    There are at least 2 RPCVs (returned peace corps volunteers) including me, among those who attend Senior Planet. Probably more.

    There is a facebook group RPCVs of NYC: look there for more info.

    Eileen McGinn

  • Ken Shaw
    REPLY

    Thank you, again, Sharon. It was such a transcendent experience and I truly recommend any senior give it a shot for a truly amazing experience!

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