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Florida volunteers see both sides of new Peace Corps process

Richard Gillies, 88, left, and his partner, Rebecca Wellborn, 56, met when working on a Peace Corps mission together in Jamaica in 1998.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Richard Gillies, 88, left, and his partner, Rebecca Wellborn, 56, met when working on a Peace Corps mission together in Jamaica in 1998.

When Elizabeth Coomber submitted her application for the Peace Corps, she had one destination in mind: Africa. But the process took months, and there was no guarantee she would be selected or that her choice of region would be honored.

"It was incredibly drawn out because it kind of left you in the dark for most of it," the Valrico native said.

On Wednesday, the Peace Corps announced changes designed to streamline that process. A new application will take about one hour instead of eight, shortened acceptance times are meant to ease uncertainty, and potential volunteers now will be able to choose the country they want to serve in and the type of work they want to do.

The changes are meant to boost a waning volunteer force and appeal to a different demographic.

"Essentially, Peace Corps is still about sending people where they need to go," regional spokeswoman Alethea Parker said. "We just want to really reflect what this new generation is looking for."

For Coomber, 25, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale, the news is overdue.

"I think that will be awesome, and something that will encourage more people to apply," she said.

Florida has the fifth-highest number of currently serving volunteers in the country, and the Tampa Bay area ranks 38th in the country in terms of currently serving volunteers. But some Peace Corps veterans wonder if the new application process might set hopefuls up for failure.

Rebecca Wellborn of Dunedin joined the Peace Corps at 40. Her life was at a crossroads, and she was looking for a way to work overseas. She wanted to work in Latin America or the South Pacific, but was sent to Jamaica.

"There were quite a few people who went in that got down there and flipped," Wellborn, 56, said.

She served from 1998 to 2000 and said several members of her group left early or were sent home. She worries that a shortened application process won't do enough to weed out those who aren't fully committed, and could be a waste of the resources used to train those men and women.

Wellborn stuck it out.

"It made me fearless," she said.

She met her partner, Richard Gillies in Jamaica. Gillies enlisted at the age of 72, after a career in the oil industry left him wanting to volunteer overseas.

People over 50 make up about 8 percent of Florida's currently serving volunteers. But a high percentage sign up right out of college, too. More than 10 percent of the state's 309 active volunteers, as of last September, came from the University of South Florida.

Simona Platukyte, 26, returned in May from a two-year service doing water resource work in the Dominican Republic and will finish a master's degree from USF in December.

She said she thinks the changes, particularly the ability to choose a favored country and line of work, actually could help retention.

"It takes a lot of guesswork out of it," said Platukyte, who lives in Tampa. "I think some people will be able to last longer."

Coomber said she hopes the changes will remove a few barriers to entry. She loved her time in the Peace Corps and wants the same for others who might have been daunted by the old application process.

"It's the best two years I've spent in my entire life," she said.

Contact Claire Wiseman at cwiseman@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman.

.FAST FACTS

Volunteers mingle

Tampa Bay Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers is a group of current, former and future Peace Corps volunteers who meet locally. For more information, visit tamparpcvs.org.

. FAST FACTS

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Tampa Bay Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers is a group of current, former and future US Peace Corps volunteers who meet locally. For more information, visit tamparpcvs.org.

Florida volunteers see both sides of new Peace Corps process 07/15/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 15, 2014 10:42pm]
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