Growing up in Missouri, Helene Dudley dreamed of faraway places, exotic locales with warm weather and palm trees. Except for an eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C., however, she had never traveled far, let alone out of the country.
So when she graduated with a political science degree in the tumultuous 1960s, she volunteered for the new Peace Corps. “Being a young Catholic girl in the 1960s, it was natural for me to want to join something that was started by this very handsome Catholic president,” she recalls of the volunteer organization created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Her two-year stint in Colombia was so rewarding —“a life-changing experience,” she calls it — that almost 30 years later she volunteered again, this time in Slovakia as a 51-year-old mother of adult children. Upon her return, she devoted much of her time to the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of South Florida, serving as president, editing the group’s newsletter, and helping to establish The Colombia Project, partnering with grassroots organizations to provide micro-loans in that South American country.
For her dedication to the Peace Corps, Dudley, 67, will receive the Lillian Carter Award Wednesday in Atlanta. Given out every two years, the award is named for former President Jimmy Carter’s mother, who at 68 joined the Peace Corps in 1966 as a public health volunteer in India. It’s a national recognition presented to an outstanding returned volunteer who was 50 or older at time of service and who has demonstrated a continuing commitment to the agency. She is the first recipient from South Florida.
In 2007, Dudley also received the President’s Volunteer Service Award, created by President Bush in 2003 to recognize Americans who inspire others through volunteerism.
Alethea Parker, a public affairs specialist for the Corps, says Dudley exemplifies the character and dedication of older volunteers. “Senior volunteers bring a lot of skills to Peace Corps service. They have the maturity, hands on experience, education and willingness to give back to society.”
Recognizing the talents older adults bring to the table, the service agency partnered with AARP in 2011 to attract more people 50 and older. Though the average age of Peace Corps volunteers is 28, 7 percent are older than 50.
Dudley, who has lived in Miami for more than 35 years, has been working on her acceptance speech for days. In it, she talks about her experience abroad and how it changed her and the way she viewed her own country. She calls on the 210,000 returned Peace Corps volunteers to be social activists at home, following the Carter family’s example of civic engagement and social activism.
“We have to step out of our comfort zone,” she said in an interview before she flew to Atlanta.
Linda Whitmyre, a returned Peace Corps volunteer who lives in Miami and nominated Dudley for the award, said her friend has used what she learned during her Peace Corps stints to build bridges of understanding and help underserved people. Dudley has been to Colombia dozens of time and back to Slovakia four times.
“She’s fairly gregarious,” Whitmyre said, “and she keeps her friends for a long time. She’s very loyal.”
Dudley was one of about a dozen new college grads who volunteered from St. Louis University during the 1960s. In Colombia she worked at a feeding center in Barranquilla. At the time there were 700 Peace Corps volunteers in that country, 30 in her city alone. When she speaks of her years there, between 1968 and 1970, her tone turns wistful.
“Just walking down the street, hearing the music and seeing the beautiful bougainvillea, it was such an experience,” she says now. “And the people... the people were wonderful, so friendly.”But Dudley also noticed that life in Colombia was very different, in large ways and small. She soon realized that every town had “a house of ill repute” frequented by the local men, including the married ones — but divorce was unheard of. Such contradictions challenged her thinking. But it also served to keep her mind open to new experiences and different mores.
“I learned that if people had been doing something for 100 years, you don’t just go in and try to change it because you want to,” she says. “You need to know why they’re doing that. You need to walk in their shoes.”
When she returned stateside, she landed a job as a Spanish-speaking social worker in Chicago, married and had two sons, Gregory, now 39, and Timothy, 37. Mary Ashley, a Korean girl the couple later adopted, was killed in a car accident in 2006.
In 1976, the family decided to move to Miami. “We had listened to a lot of Jimmy Buffet songs,” she jokes. And in 1982, when the boys were in third and first grades, the couple took off for Mexico where they taught English as a second language and enrolled their sons in a local Mexican school.
“This was something I had dreamed of doing ever since Colombia,” she says. “I had had such a wonderful cross-cultural experience and wanted my children to have that, too.”
When the family returned, Dudley worked at a variety of jobs, but it wasn’t until her youngest, Mary Ashley, had left for college that she decided on a second stint with the Peace Corps. By then she was divorced and looking for a challenge. In 1997, her initial assignment to Albania ended abruptly when her group was evacuated as the country descended into chaos. She then went to Slovakia as a small business volunteer.
“The 23-year-old me was still there,” she says, “but when you’re older you’re much more proactive. You have all these life experiences to draw on.”
Back in Miami in 1999, she became active with the local Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and served as a board member of the National Peace Corps Association. Then she and several former volunteers created The Colombia Project (colombiaproject.org), a nonprofit that works with grassroots groups in Colombia to identify and help small, marginalized entrepreneurs. The program now supports more than 1,000 micro-entrepreneurs, with an average loan of $225.
She considers The Colombia Project the epilogue of her Peace Corps story. She and other volunteers used what they learned abroad about nonprofits and grants to launch the program. Now, 13 years after the first loan was issued, new Peace Corps volunteers in Colombia are helping to transfer responsibility for the program to groups in Colombia.
Aside from being a parent, Dudley considers her Peace Corps service stints to be the most important experiences in her life. “My life would have been so different if I hadn’t volunteered,” she says. “It wouldn’t have been so rich.”