Cover Story

After a 37-year career as a psychologist in the military, Ernie Lenz, PhD, was ready for some rest and relaxation. So he backpacked across New Zealand, then crewed on a sailboat in the Gulf of Mexico. But with four years of a highly active retirement under his belt, Lenz was ready to serve his country again.

"I thought to myself: 'I have had a good life. Maybe it is time for a little payback,'" says Lenz. "So I went online and looked up the Peace Corps."

During his time in the military, Lenz performed many duties, such as treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and developing assessment tools for selecting the Special Forces soldiers. Now, in his current Peace Corps mission--teaching health and hygiene to Guatemalan schoolchildren--Lenz credits that military experience for his easy acclimatization to living in the developing country.

The realities of living in the small town of Santiago Atitlan, such as riding the converted school buses that transport people and livestock alike, disconcert some Peace Corps volunteers. But "chicken buses" and poverty do not faze Lenz, who in 1991 led a U.S. Army humanitarian mission to El Salvador in the midst of a civil war.

Lenz also attributes his easy transition to the patience that comes with age. The retired psychologist joined the corps in 2003, after the death of his wife, at the age of 66--making him one of the few applicants who was alive when, in 1960, then-Senator. John F. Kennedy challenged college students to promote peace by working in developing countries. Today, the median age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 25, though volunteers over 50 make up 6 percent of the corps.

But what Lenz's career as a military psychologist taught him about behavior change--how to achieve it and how difficult it can be--most aids him in his current work, he says. Each day that he helps children learn healthy habits, he uses psychological principles such as modeling and positive reinforcement, he notes.

Hygiene and health

Changing the behavior of schoolchildren--in particular, teaching them to regularly wash their hands--can be a matter of life or death in Santiago Atitlan, where upper respiratory infections and diarrhea contribute to a high infant mortality rate and affect the older population as well. By teaching sanitation and hygiene to four classes each day, Lenz hopes to put a dent in this problem, with help from current public works projects by organizations such as Water for Health, which is making running water readily available.

When his students wash their hands before their mid-morning snack, Lenz makes a show of washing his hands as well. He also picks up litter around the school--as garbage contributes to public health problems and befouls the town's lake. And when Lenz sees his students picking up litter or rinsing their hands, the retired psychologist makes sure to praise them.

Lenz also uses interactive lessons to teach the students the science behind personal hygiene and environmental consciousness. In one popular activity for younger students, Lenz sets up a "musical chairs"-type game, where the children, playing the part of familiar animals, walk around a group of chairs while music plays. When the music stops, the students must find a seat, but some of the seats are taken up by garbage and can't be occupied. This, says Lenz, helps his younger students understand that pollution can damage and destroy animal habitats.

Lessons on germ theory take a more traditional form, says Lenz. He asks his students what they know about germs and illness, and then builds from their existing understanding. The retired psychologist also makes sure that all of his students have a chance to participate.

"I especially encourage girls to speak up in class, and ask them questions," says Lenz. "They can be very shy about it."

A natural mentor

In addition to the regular curriculum, Lenz teaches his students to think constructively and creatively about their future careers by encouraging them to set goals and follow positive role models. For example, Lenz tells his younger students stories about his daughter, an attorney and an accountant, to show that women can have high-powered careers.

"I tell the class that there are both men and women, indigenous persons, who are attorneys and who are physicians," says Lenz.

Many students are not even aware that these careers are open to them, he says.

The older students in Lenz's class draw a timeline of their own lives, spanning 20 years into the future. Lenz talks with them about their plans, and helps the children think about possible solutions to the hurdles they face, such as poverty and family obligations. By taking his students' dreams seriously, Lenz tries to engender in them the belief that their goals can be reached.

Fellow Peace Corps volunteers also benefit from the psychologist's wisdom, says Lenz's supervisor Cindy Threlkeld.

"He is just revered by the other volunteers," Threlkeld noted. "They go to him for career counseling and with personal issues."

The other volunteers, largely in their mid-twenties, are often unsure of what they want to do after their two years in the corps, says Threlkeld. Lenz directs them to draw a timeline just like his fifth-graders--an exercise that leads to goal setting and thinking beyond what they currently believe is possible, says the psychologist.

As for his own future, Lenz plans to return to Texas at the end of his two-year tour of duty. His children and grandchildren, he says, want him home. But with Lenz's sense of responsibility to children beyond just his own, don't be surprised if the psychologist ends up heading back to his Guatemalan classroom.

"If my health holds up, I'll certainly consider [returning] in another five or 10 years," he says.