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Aging volunteers await next Peace Corps job
Seattle Times staff reporter
Over the years, Elena Fujiwara has gotten used to the fact that her parents, both in their 80s, are not the types to go on a cruise or do needlepoint.
Instead, her parents, Chuck and Marcia McBeath, are waiting for their seventh Peace Corps assignment. The most recent took them to Kenya.
The McBeaths are part of an increasing number of Peace Corps volunteers who are retired. The Peace Corps, which has no maximum age for volunteers, values retirees for their experience.
"My parents never let anyone stop them," Fujiwara said.
The McBeaths were in their 60s and about to retire when they wandered into a Peace Corps recruiting office in 1986. Their four kids were grown. They'd lived all over the world already, settling down in Shoreline only temporarily while their children finished up at Shorecrest High School.
Since then, Chuck, a retired engineer, and Marcia, a retired psychologist, have done six terms of service in the Peace Corps. They've helped design water systems in the African desert, trained counselors in the Caribbean and narrowly escaped a civil war on the Ivory Coast.
Nearly every time the end of a two-year commitment threatened to send them back to a more normal retirement, the couple answered the same way: by asking for an extension and a transfer.
"Usually it's because we're doing something we wanted to finish," said Marcia McBeath, 81.
The two breaks they've taken in the past 20 years have been brought on by health issues, but the McBeaths say they're in "better than average" health. Each wears a pedometer and tries to walk 10,000 steps a day.
Fujiwara said her parents have always been adventurous. Her mother, she said, was "a feminist before there were feminists."
When they lived in Shoreline from 1966 to 1976, Marcia McBeath worked as a school counselor and taught at the University of Washington while Chuck McBeath, now 83, worked at an engineering firm.
When they joined the Peace Corps, they inventoried their belongings and mailed the list to their kids, who took what they wanted. The McBeaths gave away everything else. Now everything they own fits in a trunk and a file cabinet.
The couple's University District apartment came furnished. They put their French dictionary and a stack of New Yorker magazines on its bookshelf, made up the bed and plugged in a laptop. It has the feeling of not staying long.
And they hope not to be, they said.
Instead of being a hindrance, the McBeaths say their age has helped them as Peace Corps volunteers. In the other cultures they have worked in, they said, age is revered. People refer to them in their native language as "grandma" and "grandpa." The Peace Corps estimates that about 6 percent of their more than 7,500 volunteers are baby boomers.
And the younger Peace Corps volunteers? They treat them as one of their own, they said. They can even tell you about going nightclubbing on the Ivory Coast.
"I think they really like helping people," Fujiwara said.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company