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Hostel Takeover: Sleeping on the cheap in Burlington's New North End 

click to enlarge Nancy Farrell, seated, and assistant Andrea Fox, to her left, host some guests on the go. - JORDAN SILVERMAN
  • Jordan Silverman
  • Nancy Farrell, seated, and assistant Andrea Fox, to her left, host some guests on the go.

Dorothy Delaney, the daughter of a former Vermont legislator, remembers lying awake at night, listening to her father and his political friends discussing the presidency of John F. Kennedy. “He was very pleased that an Irish-Catholic Democrat had made it to the White House,” Delaney says. “And he was very inspired by Kennedy’s Peace Corps idea. He said he hoped one of his children would join it some day.”

Delaney did go on to fulfill her father’s hopes, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa, from 1980 to ’82. She’s one of nearly 1200 Vermonters who have joined the Corps since its inception in 1961. And she’ll be among several Vermont veterans traveling to Washington later this month to attend the organization’s 40th anniversary celebration — postponed from last autumn due to the September 11 terrorist attack.

Vermonters account for a disproportionately large share of the 165,000 Americans who answered Kennedy’s call to serve their country abroad in a non-military capacity. Some former volunteers say the Green Mountain State ranks first among the 50 states in per capita enlistment in the Peace Corps. Officials at the agency’s headquarters cannot confirm that claim, but they do point out that Middlebury College is tied for second place — with Colby, behind Tufts — among small colleges for producing the most “volunteers.”

Middlebury’s high representation reflects the school’s global focus, says Brendan O’Brien, a career advisor at the college who was himself a volunteer in Paraguay. A large number of Middlebury students major in a foreign language and spend at least one semester abroad, O’Brien notes. Their out-of-country experiences often lead grads back overseas. The nearly 400 alumni who have served with the Peace Corps also constitute a network that encourages recruitment.

Vermonters in general are drawn to this type of service because of their social consciousness and strong sense of community, suggests Vanessa Levesque, a Peace Corps recruiter based at the University of Vermont and a former volunteer in Uganda. “The connection Vermonters feel for their neighbors leads many of them to think about helping in a community in another country,” she says.

But each individual has his or her own reasons for joining. Based on her speaking engagements and consultations all over the state, Levesque believes that many applicants are motivated by multiple missions, including the desire to challenge themselves by living in a different country and learning a new language, and the opportunity to put their particular skills to good use.

George Dameron, a history professor at St. Michael’s College, says he was seeking adventure outside the western world as well as proficiency in a non-Indo-European language. He found all that during his 1975-77 Peace Corps service in Benin, where he learned to speak Adja, helped build grain silos, and “became totally immersed in West African culture.”

For Frances and Paul Stone, owners of a turkey farm in Orwell, the Peace Corps beckoned when they were at a career crossroads in 1971. The Stones had been working in the British Virgin Islands at a camp run by Vermont-based Farm and Wilderness, a Quaker organization. They decided to pack up their four children, then ages 3 to 11, and go to work in the Philippines on agricultural projects and in a local school.

Although they were still idealistic enough to accept just a small stipend for difficult living conditions, the two parents embarked on their Peace Corps sojourn “with our eyes a little more open than some volunteers‚” Frances Stone says. “We didn’t go there to change the world or the people of the Philippines. We tried to achieve what we could within the framework of their culture. The people were poor when we got there, and we understood that they’d still be poor when we left.”

The Stones also thought they had an obligation to serve their own country for at least two years. “The Peace Corps was our way of doing that, rather than going into the armed forces,” Frances says.

Bill and Shirley Bingham wanted to do more in their retirement years than watch the sun set from their Shrewsbury home. When Bill turned 60 and Shirley was 57, they moved to Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific. Joining the Peace Corps “presents special complications for older people,” notes Shirley, a former special-education director for the Rutland South Supervisory Union. “Unlike younger volunteers, we had a lot to worry about at home.”

Both Binghams had mothers in nursing homes at the time of their departure for Vanuatu in 1997, and Bill was unable to return when his mother died. The couple also missed the birth of their first grandchild.

The Binghams are among a growing number of retired Americans who decide to head for the Third World rather than the local country club. While nearly three-quarters are between 18 and 29, close to 10 percent of today’s 7000 Peace Corps volunteers are 50 or older. The organization is diversifying in other ways as well — about 15 percent of current volunteers are members of U.S. racial minorities, and more than 60 percent are women. Middle-class college graduates still account for the vast majority of volunteers. But Vermont recruiter Levesque recently interviewed a person who grew up in a foster home and an 18-year-old who doesn’t want to attend college.

Regardless of their background or motivations for joining, many Peace Corps alumni in Vermont describe their years of service as life-altering.

“It made me a teacher,” says Michele Forman, a 1967-69 volunteer in Nepal who went on to earn honors as National Teacher of the Year. The Middlebury Union High School history and Arabic language teacher says she hadn’t even considered such a career prior to becoming a health instructor in a remote corner of the Himalayan kingdom. “The Peace Corps also led me to become a world historian,” Forman says. “It taught me that history shouldn’t be compartmentalized, that the whole world is interconnected.”

Matt Wootten has taken a career path atypical of those followed by Peace Corps veterans. He works in the Burlington office of Morgan Stanley, a money-management firm — albeit as a specialist in socially responsible investing. Wootten was inspired to go in that direction while studying online for a Master’s in business — something he managed to do at the same time he served as a volunteer on an island in Lake Nicaragua. A book by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman further persuaded Wootten to work for social change from within the financial services sector.

“A lot of international organizations are ineffective because their management is not as effective as in industry,” Wootten says. “My aim is to get experience in private business and bring it back to the public sector.”

George Dameron and his wife Debbie, a Vermont Health Department official, owe their marriage to the Peace Corps. They met while both were volunteering in West Africa. “That happens a lot,” says George, the St. Mike’s history professor. “Many volunteers develop long-lasting relationships with other volunteers, both as friends and as spouses.

“For almost everyone who goes,” he continues, “I think it absolutely changes your life.”

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