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Ford volunteers in Central America

Melanie Ford is brushing up on her Spanish.

"I need to practice the verb endings and adjectives and things like that to make sure everything matches up with the tenses," Ford said. "Then there's the feminine and masculine form for everything. It's a lot to remember."

At age 59, Ford is closing up her private law practice to leave for the Peace Corps on March 17. The former St. Louis County attorney has signed up for a 27-month volunteer commitment to serve in Spanish-speaking El Salvador.

"I'm wrapping up client files and trying to get my taxes done before I go. I moved out of my office and I'm reading through all the information on El Salvador the Peace Corps has sent me," Ford said.

About 7 percent of Peace Corp volunteers are over age 50. "Peace Corp has no upper age limit," Heather Mangan said. She is with Peace Corp Midwest Regional office. "Fifty-plus volunteers usually offer a unique service and a unique skill set."

Ford said, "A lot of people when I say that I'm going to El Salvador think of the kids that have crossed the border and are fleeing from violence. Or they think of those brutal civil wars that took place in the past century. They ask, 'Why would you want to do that? It's dangerous there.'"

She reminds them that the Peace Corps takes measures to protect their volunteers.

"The corps will never knowingly send us into a hostile environment and they would pull us volunteers out of the country if it became a dangerous place," Ford said.

Ford will work on community and economic development projects. She doesn't know exactly what this will be, but she advise nonprofit voluntary citizens' group.

"I have done a lot of community involvement and activism here in Duluth and that's always been rewarding," Ford said.

Ford has been involved community groups such as the League of Women Voters and the Professional Women's Network and served on the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial board.

"This will just be putting it on another playing field to see how it's done in another country and to see how the Peace Corps does community development compared to what I've done here," Ford said.

Although Ford says she has to brush up on her Spanish, she has a significant amount of experience with the language. She was a Spanish major in college and studied abroad in Spain in her sophomore year.

"I liked Spain so much that I moved back there and spent five years living and working there," Ford said.

When she moved back to the United States, Ford's job at Cargill required her to speak Spanish on a regular basis for the 13 years that she worked there.

"But then I moved to Duluth and stopped speaking Spanish. There wasn't very much opportunity up here as a lawyer to speak Spanish. So I got a little rusty over the years," Ford said.

To practice, Ford has been reading Spanish novels and listening online to radio stations that stream from El Salvador.

Ford is excited about the opportunities for cross cultural education. Her sister-in-law spent three years in the Peace Corps in Russia and Ford remembers reading all of her emails.

"I think that the Peace Corps is important in that it helps Americans understand more about different cultures and people from other countries understand more about Americans," Ford said.

One person to whom she will be writing home is her husband, Don Bonhiver.

"My husband is staying behind with the dog. He loves to travel too, but he's a small-business owner and not ready to retire," Ford said. "But from what I understand, cellphone service is abundant in El Salvador, so we can have contact as often as we want."

Ford says her husband is planning to visit her during her stay and talk through other means of communication, such as email, Skype and the phone in the interim.

"Who knows, with technology these days we might even be talking to each other more than we're doing now," Ford said.

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

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