BALTIMORE – Victoria Smith does not fit the typical 20-something, white, single, female college graduate Peace Corps volunteer prototype.
The key differences? She’s African American, and she’s 68.
The Baltimore resident has served two official tours in the Peace Corps as part of an unofficial subgroup affectionately referred to as Senior Corps.
Seven percent of the corps’ current 6,700 volunteers are over the age of 50. The seniors are, generally, a highly educated group, said Paige Risser, a spokeswoman for the Peace Corps regional office. Almost 90 percent of the seniors in service have college degrees and half of those have graduate degrees.
Most seniors concentrate on education and business aspects of the corps.
Smith, a retired Red Cross disaster nurse, taught some English during her stints, but mainly served in a medical capacity.
Always interested in volunteering overseas, Smith said she never had an opportunity when she was younger.
“I was married with two small children and I felt my duty was to them.”
After her children grew up and her husband died, she began to think again of volunteering. She joined the Peace Corps in 1987 and returned from her last tour in 1995. After preparing for a year, she was sent to Costa Rica.
The hardest part of the job, Smith said, is getting people there to trust you. As part of the cultural immersion program, the Peace Corps places the volunteers with native families.
“That family becomes your family, no matter your age,” Smith said. “That mother is your mother and she treats you as her child.”
Smith served first in Costa Rica, then, when her time was up there, she told the Peace Corps she wanted to go on to Africa.
It was unusual — generally, volunteers are required to take time off between their placements — but the Peace Corps went along with a direct placement. Various bureaucratic requirements held her up for eight months, but finally she was sent to Malawi.
“The whole thing started over again,” Smith said. “The training, the swearing in, special AIDS training classes. You would think after doing it once, you could just go over and get started, but no.”
Once there, she encountered racism — not just by the Africans, but by other Peace Corps volunteers.
“I was prepared for the native racism,” Smith said. “During our training we had to act out situations that could occur and what we would do in them.”
Maybe it was a combination of her age and race, but other volunteers weren’t much nicer to her, Smith said. It was very hard for her.
Even though all she really wanted to do was go home when her time was up, and despite her two sons’ urging, Smith volunteered to go to Tanzania to help in refugee camps there.
Now she aches when hears tales of Kosovo refugees fleeing Serbian aggression in Yugoslavia. Tanzanian refugees left a profound impression on her.
“When I see these things in the paper, what people are saying (about refugee camps), I want to tell them what it is like. I have seen people literally starving to death, who have not eaten anything in days,” Smith said. “It is horrible.”