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Off to Africa : At 78, Peace Corps Volunteer Takes On a New Continent

April 20, 1986|ROD LAZO | Times Staff Writer

Olive Green's 1926 high school yearbook characterized her as the student most likely to become a missionary to China.

Although the idea seemed ridiculous to her at the time, her classmates were not far off the mark.

Green, a West Covina resident who will turn 79 next month, will leave Friday for Africa on her second assignment with the Peace Corps.

"I'm determined to make life worthwhile for someone else," said Green, an energetic, petite woman.

25 Months in Philippines

She said the upcoming trip to Sierra Leone, a country on the west coast of Africa, "looks a little bit harder" than the 25 months she spent as a Peace Corps worker in the Philippines between 1978 and 1980. "But I'm sure I'll love it," she said.

The trip to Africa will mark more than 40 years of volunteer work for Green, who has received a number of awards and commendations for her activities.

"People are my glue," Green said. "Volunteer work holds me together."

It was after the death of her husband in 1976 that Green decided to take her volunteer work beyond the traditional hospital and convalescent home corridors and into distant lands.

Green, who was living in Pittsburgh at the time, said she began contemplating the concept of peace and the fact that her name, Olive, is associated with peace.

"Prior to that, it (her name) didn't ring any bells because I was Mrs. George Green and my husband called me Ollie," she said.

'A Crush on Peace'

"I sort of got a crush on peace and started cutting things out in newspapers that had 'peace' in them. . . . Then my nephew suggested I go into the Peace Corps."

At the age of 69, Green applied to the Peace Corps, starting a process that usually takes six to nine months. She filled out a 12-page application, passed a physical and was interviewed and placed in a pool of applicants being considered for community service positions in other countries.

Her age was not a problem, she said.

"Age is an asset in the Peace Corps," said Joseph Permetti, a spokesman for the Los Angeles office of the Peace Corps. "In many Third World countries age is respected. . . . She's seen a lot and experienced a lot and when she goes up and talks to mothers about their children she will have the experience of raising a child and they will know it."

Permetti said that more than 500 of about 6,000 Peace Corps volunteers around the world are 50 or older, but not many are as old as Green.

Because she was told that previous community service might improve her chances of being chosen, Green volunteered in late 1976 to help with Pittsburgh's Meals on Wheels program. "I was assigned to five people who were shut-ins and I would take them meals once a week," she said.

In 1977, Green was given a Peace Corps assignment in Jamaica, but that program was canceled. The next year she went to the Philippines, where she spent 25 months as a health worker in Jasaan, a village on one of the southern Philippine islands.

'Gingerbread House'

Although most people in Jasaan live in huts, Green lived with two older women who had electricity and a television set in their home. It wasn't fancy, she said, but "I called their house the gingerbread house because it was made of concrete" rather than the natural materials used for most construction in the area.

She added that she had little difficulty adjusting to the native customs and "got used to eating fresh fish for breakfast."

"I was just one of the family," she said. Before long, she was attending graduations, birthday parties and community celebrations.

As a health worker, Green helped set up feeding centers for malnourished children and worked as a nutrition adviser with the National Nutrition Council.

She also periodically set out on foot to barangays, or mountain villages, in search of malnourished children. Shortly after returning to the United States, she received a letter from the Peace Corps worker who replaced her.

"Your hikes to the barangays are legendary," said the letter.

Villagers also remember her for persuading the governor of the province to dress up as a banana as part of an effort to stress the values of a nutritional diet. She portrayed a coconut.

Pennsylvania Native

Green, who was born and reared in Punxsutawney, Pa., about 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, found that in Jasaan older people are respected more than in the United States.

In the same manner that her husband's death motivated her to go into the Peace Corps, the death of two of her four children in the late 1940s prompted Green to get more actively involved in volunteer projects.

One son died in 1943 of a cerebral hemorrhage, and five years later, a daughter died of Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer that was incurable at the time.

The deaths "kind of melted the glue, and then I got it back together when I did some volunteer work," Green said.

"You just want to take your mind off of yourself and what has happened," she said. "After a while it grew into a pattern of volunteerism."

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