The traditional image of Peace Corps volunteers as fresh-faced, longhaired college students is quickly changing with a growing number of older volunteers. According to Maria Lee, public relations director for the Peace Corps Northwest region, 6 percent of Peace Corps workers are aged 50 and over, and their ranks are growing.




Lee says that the Northwest is the largest producer of Peace Corps volunteers over 50.




"At some of our local information sessions, in fact, Baby Boomers have outnumbered younger attendees," she said. "We're looking at this growing phenomenon with a great deal of optimism."




According to Lee, today's Peace Corps needs specialized skills that many older workers possess. Volunteers aren't just digging ditches or plowing fields. They build community-based computer centers, work as educators and advise business startups. Many older Americans seek second careers instead of retirement.




JoAnn Gaasland, who divides her time between Ashland and the Portland area, joined the Peace Corps when she was 53 years old. She served two terms, volunteering in Jordan and Armenia. She wanted a change in her life and she says the Peace Corps was ideal.




"The Peace Corps didn't just change my life, it saved my life," she said.




Though Gaasland always enjoyed travel, she says the Peace Corps gave her a chance to give back to society and achieve a more global perspective. Since her return, she devotes a great deal of time to volunteering.




Gaasland says that as an older volunteer she was treated with a great deal of respect, both from fellow volunteers and the people she was serving.




"I was by no means the only gray-haired one in the group," she said. There were at least six volunteers older than Gaasland in her Jordan unit and 12 her senior in Armenia.




"Many of my fellow Peace Corps workers in Armenia were repeaters," she said. "One woman was in her 70s, and Armenia was the second country she served in."




Maria Lee recalls two well-known volunteers. Lillian Carter, the mother of former President Jimmy Carter, was 68 years old when she joined the Peace Corps. And Seattle resident Evangeline Shuler is the oldest known living returned Peace Corps volunteer today.




"Evangeline Shuler was in her 60s in the '60s," Lee said. "Today, she lives in downtown Seattle, still loves to tango and is celebrating her 102nd birthday this year. We think that's pretty incredible."




Southern Oregon residents who are interested in the Peace Corps can contact the Northwest regional office at: (800) 424-8580 or go online to .