In 1966, at the age of 68, “Presidential Mama” Lillian Carter flew to India to serve in the Peace Corps for 21 months. At the time, she seemed like an outlier, but today, seven percent of Peace Corps volunteers are FOFs (the oldest is an 86 year-old woman serving in Morocco). And this past month, the Peace Corps turned 50 itself! To help celebrate this milestone, we spoke to two FOFs: Connie Ross, on the cusp of her commitment, and Dena Fisher, well into her service in Belize.
Connie M. Ross
Peace Corps Service: Leaving for Georgia [the country] at the end of April to work as a facilitator of a Business and Social Entrepreneurship program, helping people build businesses that are sustainable.
Where in the U.S. do you live?
Tell us a little about your life leading up to your decision to join the Peace Corps.
I was a clothing dealer and designer for fifteen years. When my husband passed away from brain cancer, I took my son on a nine-month trip around the world. We wrote for the Denver Post and an in-flight magazine. We’ve done five world trips since.
And that led to the decision to join the Peace Corps?
Many things culminated in this decision. After my first world trip, fifteen years ago, I knew that this part of my life was going to be spent working in other countries. Last year I worked as a program director for an English studies program at an all-women’s school in Kuwait. That was phenomenal, and I wanted to continue working abroad. When my job in Kuwait came to a close, I started looking for work. I saw listings for “Country Directors” in many different countries. I qualified in all ways, except for having Peace Corps experience.
Had you ever thought about joining before?
I applied to the Peace Corps when I was 21. But I had a knee injury and wasn’t qualified to serve. It’s always been in the back of my mind.
How does it feel to be going away for 27 months?
It’s what I’ve been doing all my life. My family is so accustomed to me leaving. Plus, I’ll have time off. We earn vacation time each month, and people can come and see me every month.
What are you most excited about?
I’m very excited to learn their language; it doesn’t come from any root language. I believe I’ll be fluent in some period of time – six months, nine months – being totally immersed in their culture.
Any anxiety or fear about it all?
No fear. I just came off a five-month solo trip; three months of it were in India. There were many times in the morning when I didn’t know where I was going to sleep at night. The world is an incredible place. And there are so many wonderful people to meet. Let’s just say that I’ve always had success in meeting wonderful people.
Peace Corps Service: Currently in Belize, Central America, Community development/organizational management, 2010-2012
Where in the U.S. do you live?
New York City.
Tell us a little about your life leading up to your Peace Corps service.
I was a social worker for 20 years, then began a second career in public health. I retired at age 55 and became executive director of the New York City Office of Seeds of Peace, a program that brings children together from regions of conflict. I retired for the third time to lead a NYC-Nicaragua village sister city project.
What led to your decision to join the Peace Corps?
I was attracted by the energy of the 2008 election and what I believe is a new era in our relationships with Latin America. Social security, a state pension and medicare allowed me to do something where I didn’t have to earn a salary.
What was it like leaving your family to go abroad and work? Were they supportive?
My family is incredibly supportive, especially my husband. He had to take over family responsibilities including managing issues for my then-92-year-old mom. My mom died when I had been here in Belize for seven months, and the Peace Corps was amazingly supportive. I was able to continue service and deal with issues at home. I will never forget the help I got while I was helping others.
What about your friends?
My friends, on the other hand, think I am a bit nuts to be doing this. But they know I have always been interested in developing countries and making a difference. I regret that many of them – talented professionals – don’t use their skills in retirement.
Upon returning to the states, how will the experience change your outlook?
I’ll remain involved in developing countries, community health and social justice projects. I hope to continue with the Peace Corps response program – shorter term, specific projects. I also hope to encourage young folks to get involved with the global community through the Peace Corps.
Anything else you think our readers would find interesting about your story?
I hope the stereotype of Peace Corps being about twenty-somethings will be debunked. I always knew about Jimmy Carter’s then-68-year-old mother in the Peace Corps, but never realized the full age range. One third of our group is over 55 years of age and I suspect that the average age is rising. I hope that men and women over 50 will consider the opportunity to make the world a better place by using their skills and experience, and receiving the incredible support available through the Peace Corps.