By Joyce DeWallace
Region – Ed Wilson, a Meals-on-Wheels volunteer at the Senior Center in Shrewsbury, first heard about the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. At that time he had finished a stint in the Army, was involved in his career and raising a family.
“I liked the concept of the Peace Corps, but with three children and family responsibilities, there was no way I could be part of the program,” Wilson said. “I liked the whole idea, and throughout my life, always followed stories about the corps.
“I was really impressed when President Carter's mother joined in her 70s. The fact that at her age, she wanted to go out there was inspirational – never thinking that I would do something similar.”
During the next three decades of his life, Wilson faced many personal challenges; his first wife died at the age of 38, leaving him to raise his family. He remarried, only to lose his second wife in 1999. Wilson was then living in Watertown.
“I had no kids to take care of, and didn's want to sit around feeling sorry for myself,” he explained. “I made a phone call to Washington, D.C. They sent me the application and the forms.”
Wilson filled out the paperwork and took the required physical. Then he waited. And waited. After about five months, he finally talked to someone who explained, “I don's know what you'se looking for, but I have an opening for a public health worker in Kenya.”
“You'se got the wrong guy; I's not a doctor,” Wilson replied.
“They'se got a lot of problems with sanitation,” the Peace Corps official said. “We'sl give you training in HIV and AIDS education, and you can do it.”
Around Christmas of 2000, Wilson started putting it all together. He sold his house. He moved in with one of his sons in Millbury. He took care of the legal matters, the proper immunizations and medical records.
Finally in June of 2001, he went to Washington, D.C., where he spent three days of orientation and preparations with 38 other volunteers. From there he flew to Nairobi for more education, before his final trip to Naivasha in Kenya for 10 weeks of training. His last trip of 250 miles took him to his assignment in the western Kenya town of Ugunja.
Wilson was 66 years old. For most of his life he had worked as a machine tools programmer involved with engineering and design. Now he was part of the Ugunja Community Resource Center's Health and Disability Program. His days were filled with planning and giving presentations to school classes, youth and church groups, and village meetings. Once a week, he provided HIV/AIDS education to the Upendo Ladies” Group, so that they could work in local schools to educate young girls. He organized a youth group to do carpentry and taught kids how to play baseball.
“It was a very macho society; the men weren's receptive, but the women were,” Wilson said. “It was satisfying to me. The best part of the experience was living in a Third World country and being part of their lives. You get to live with people and understand their day-to-day problems. It meant a lot to me.”
Wilson stayed overseas until June of 2003. He has kept in touch with some of the people in Kenya and other Peace Corps volunteers.
“It's now my job to bring their country to America,” Wilson said. “I do school programs about Kenya and a church program for sixth-graders.
“If you'se healthy and in good shape, think about the Peace Corps,” Wilson said. “The hardest part is learning the language, but it was a wonderful experience.”
The year 2011 is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, and it currently boasts the highest number of volunteers since the 1970s. The organization offers the opportunity to use personal and professional skills in grassroots development projects in education, business, health and other fields. There is no upper age limit in the Peace Corps.
For Wilson, it has been a wonderful way to “give back” in the autumn of life.