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Peace Corps Fulfilled Woman's Desire for Change in Her Life

June 28, 1992|LINDA FELDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some people, such as Maria Ariansen, don't wait until life gets so small they can write their daily "to do" list on a little yellow Post-it note.

Ariansen wanted a change, useful work to do and a feeling that she was doing good--that wasn't happening in her 9-to-5 job as a business manager for a medical office. So in 1988, at the age of 62, she quit and joined the Peace Corps.

"Everybody took me to dinner and there were lots of parties. I was treated like I was going off to join the French Foreign Legion. People thought they would never see me again," Ariansen said from her apartment in Santa Monica.

Her first choice was Morocco. Instead, she was assigned to Paraguay. But she never considered not going even though she was terrified of two things: bugs and dirt.

"I had no complaints because I had amenities, which were considered privilege by my colleagues who were living in the (country), like electricity, running water, a hot water shower and a modern bathroom," she said.

Because of her background in business, Ariansen's primary assignment was to analyze, evaluate and help solve the problems of a cooperative supermarket in Asuncion, the capital city. Her secondary assignment was teaching English to 20 people.

"On the whole it was a positive experience, but one of the first things an American has to learn are the different attitudes about work. We're very serious about work here in the States. But when you're in a culture which may not approach work in quite the same way it's frustrating. I learned very quickly that there is one thing which Paraguayans value above all else--the family," she said.

Although the nation is very poor, almost no one goes hungry in Paraguay, Ariansen said, because people take care of one another.

"The government doesn't do it. Even the 15,000 children who work selling goods on the streets of Asuncion all have a place to stay and a meal to eat. One of the things which shocked a woman I worked with was the idea that I lived alone in America. She thought that was terrible and actually felt sorry for me.

"It is unheard of for people to live alone in Paraguay and clearly, as far as my friend was concerned, I was from Mars," she said.

Ariansen's house in Asuncion became the meeting place for other volunteers stationed in the country; four years later they remain in contact. "We have our own kind of family," she said. "We will spend the rest of our lives visiting one another."

The Peace Corps, once the call to service for the young of America, is actively recruiting senior volunteers, who are making a world of difference. Because of the increased demand for more volunteers with higher levels of skills, the average age of the national Peace Corps volunteer is 31, and 12% are over 50. (Among California volunteers, 18% are over 50.) The oldest volunteer is 84.

Volunteers serve for two years, receive travel expenses, language and cross-cultural training, medical and dental care, a monthly living allowance, and $5,400 upon completion of service. According to Ariansen, the medical care is first rate, with a doctor available 24 hours a day exclusively for Peace Corps volunteers. People with experience in business and education top the preferred list, although construction workers, mechanics and health professionals are also sought. The application process is detailed and can take a year.

Maria Ariansen's adventure is over, and she says her gypsy genes have quieted forever. Among the enduring benefits, though, are the personal friendships she made in the Peace Corps and the satisfaction of having helped promote peace and friendship throughout the world.

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