VALPARAISO | By their mid-50s, many baby boomers begin examining their pensions and private retirement accounts, collect brochures for vacation spots and look forward to exchanging work for more leisure time.
Mary Kaczka decided to join the Peace Corps, one of a growing number of those older than 50 who the volunteer-based organization is actively recruiting.
“The Peace Corps is interested in our skills, our maturity,” said the 56-year-old Hammond native and Valparaiso resident. She flew out of O’Hare International Airport on Wednesday headed for Washington, D.C., for a final briefing. “Of the 50 in our group, 12 are over the age of 50.”
The Peace Corps itself turned 51 years old Friday, the day Kaczka arrived in Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim country on the Caspian Sea that was part of the former Soviet Union.
Her 27-month Peace Corps assignment in the capital of Baku will use her extensive background in economic development and her desire to use those skills in an international setting, she said.
“I’ve always been interested in global economic issues, and I’ve taught entrepreneurship and business development,” said Kaczka, who graduated from Bishop Noll Institute and Calumet College of St. Joseph.
She will live with a host family and attend 11 weeks of pre-service training, learning the Azerbaijani language and the culture.
“We learn about the country before we start our assignments,” said Kaczka, who will serve as a community economic development adviser.
Azerbaijani is a republic governed by elected officials rather than a theocracy governed by Muslim clerics. The recent protests and violence over the film made by a Coptic Christian in the United States hasn’t touched this nation, she said.
“Azerbaijan is developing a market economy and has a growing group of entrepreneurs. It is a country that has oil and will develop an international market economy," Kaczka said.
Women in Azerbaijan don’t wear burkas, the enveloping outer garment worn in some Muslim nations.
“Women need to dress conservatively. It is a male-dominated society,” she said. “In the Peace Corps, we’re not allowed to drive or ride a bicycle. We can take public transportation, which Baku has. It will be learning about a very different way of life.”
When she committed to joining the Peace Corps, Kaczka resigned as executive director of Partners in Contracting Corp. in downtown Hammond.
In that position, Kaczka spent the past five years helping small businesses successfully bid for government contracts. She also served as president of the Hammond Rotary International from 2005 to 2006 and spent a month in India as part of a Rotary group study exchange.
“What I’m excited about is to extend my experience to entrepreneurs in Azerbaijan, and the challenge of going to a place where the economy is growing,” she said.
It was that challenge that specifically appealed to her at this stage of her life.
“I was interested in a life-changing challenge and experience,” she said. “I feel like this is my purpose.”