DanvilleSanRamon.com

Living - November 9, 2007

'Toughest job you'll ever love.'

The Peace Corps comes recruiting in Danville

by Natalie O'Neill

In Paraguay, there's a slang word kids use for "cool" that also means "grandma."

Alana Callagy was living in a 12-by-12-foot shack in the rural villages of Paraguay, playing cards with local children to learn the language, when she discovered her own use of the word tended to prompt equal amounts of giggles and confusion.

The word was "Jaryi." And learning it was just one tiny nugget of knowledge - among countless - the Peace Corps volunteer took home with her after two years immersed in the culture.

"I knew I would be out doing manual labor but that's not the hard thing. It's the social stuff," Callagy explained. She now knows three languages. And a whole lot more about life.

The 27-year-old, who graduated from San Ramon Valley High School, pumped her own well water and helped grow and sustain crops. She lived with families in a village of 50 houses, located 28 kilometers away from the nearest paved road.

The simple life was good for her, she said.

"You don't need much," she explained, remembering the day-to-day living in a developing country.

"Everything is grown right there in the garden. That chicken running around the yard was going to be lunch in a couple hours," she said.

Like the majority of Peace Corps volunteers, Callagy signed up in her 20s.

But, these days, the organization is after the older folks.

There's a misconception you have to be young and freshly out of college, says Peace Corps spokesman Nathan Hale Sargent.

"We're actively trying to grow our baby boomers and seniors," he said. "I think you have people who came of age in the '60s and wanted to do it then but had family commitments and are excited to learn they can join now."

That's one reason Peace Corps is holding an information session at the Danville Library on Nov. 15 - to inform the 50-plus demographic about options for older adults.

The Peace Corps is a federal organization that sends volunteers abroad for 27 months to help developing countries and to encourage peace. Volunteers work on issues like health education, environmental preservation and technology.

The average age for a volunteer is 27 and the oldest in the area was an 81-year-old Berkeley woman.

At the Danville info session, topics will include language learning - an issue Sargent says the 50-plus group tends to be more apprehensive about. Info will also be given on Social Security benefits, and a question -and-answer period will address specific inquiries from people of all ages.

A lot of the time, older adults are looking for a career transition, have just retired, or are in need of an adventure.

Just ask Danville's Mike Decorte, 57, who explained his draw to the Peace Corps via e-mail from Albania where he is serving.

He remembers the allure of adventure tugging at him while his outwardly pleasant life as a sales representative was becoming increasingly less satisfying.

"I wanted a change," he explained. "I wanted to do something that would put me in a position to do something meaningful in this world. And to be fair, I felt I deserved at least one more adventure in this life."

Now he's creating a committee to engage people in projects that better the quality of life in Peshkopi, on the northeastern Albania, near Kosove.

And being over 50 has its benefits, he said.

"As a white-haired middle-aged man I am respected in the society. Meeting the mostly younger volunteers has been very refreshing for me," he said.

A typical day for him includes drinking coffee and socializing with neighbors, learning the language, and working on projects that give locals a voice with a national government that has a 40-year communist history.

There is no central heating and the area loses power midday, just one of the adjustments he's had to make.

"I can survive quite easily without things that before I considered to be indispensable. Things that I had access to, like hot, fresh water and electricity, were available because America has been so lucky ... I think these things lose their value until you find out what it is like to not have them," he said.

The organization's motto is, "Peace Corps. The toughest job you'll ever love."

It began in 1960 after Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to work toward peace by helping developing countries. Within two months of becoming president in 1960, he issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps, and since then 190,000 volunteers have worked in 139 countries world-wide.

Volunteers must be 18 years old, in good health and able to make a 27-month commitment. They should possess a desire to help people and a sense of adventure. As the Web site states, "It takes determination, flexibility, patience and a sense of humor."

"It hasn't always been fun, but it has always been worth it," Decorte said.

The Danville event will be held from 7-8:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 15, at the Mt. Diablo Meeting Room in the Danville Public Library on Front Street. For more information, call 1-800-424-8580 or visit www.peacecorps.gov.

Comments

Posted by Uncle Steve, a resident of another community
on Nov 9, 2007 at 10:16 am

More than a proud member of her family, I'm a proud American because of people like Alana, and my other niece, Catie, who served in the AmeriCorps in Reno, and even two of their younger brothers who studied and lived in Europe. If more of our people would have the courage to leave their relatively pampered nest to serve or at least live with citizens of different cultures, perhaps the term ugly American - or worse, apathetic - would give way to learning how to earn the right to become a citizen of the world, let alone the U.S. I discovered this while living in Europe for one year 20 years ago. I'm grateful for the continuing education that these young adults give me.


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