Older Peace Corps Volunteers

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What’s it like to be an older Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova, in eastern Europe, or in more than 60 other countries around the world?

Not Exactly Retired celebrated its 100th blog post with a special series sharing the experiences of some of Moldova’s older volunteers.

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Here are the four stories from the series:

Insights and Advice shares what some older Americans have learned in Peace Corps Moldova.

Expect Surprises explores some of the situations and emotions that most surprised them.

Looking to the Future considers how Peace Corps service has changed their life plans.

Carla’s Story shares the story of one older volunteer from Yuma, Arizona.

Are you or someone you know thinking about joining the Peace Corps? You’ll find lots of helpful information on the agency’s main application site, which also offers a website addressing the special concerns of older applicants. If you’re especially interested in Peace Corps Moldova, check out the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page, which highlights volunteers of all ages.

screen-shot-2016-12-17-at-10-00-34-amYou’ll also find more stories on this blog, Not Exactly Retired, such as Peace Corps After 50, an earlier post that was reprinted on NextAvenue and elsewhere.

We welcome your comments and invite you to subscribe to Not Exactly Retired, which has been chronicling our journey since we left our conventional jobs and American lifestyle in mid-2015 to pursue new lives of adventure and service. Perhaps it will inspire you to consider changes in your own life — or just entertain you. It’s free, and more than 10,000 people have visited. Join the journey!

Thanks to all of the Peace Corps Moldova volunteers who assisted with this series, which was published in December 2016. Unfortunately, we were unable to include all of them. Many of the others have great stories, too. See the Facebook page (above) to read some of them.

Older PCVs: 4. Carla’s Story

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Thousands of older Americans have served in the Peace Corps, and each has a story to tell. In this final post of our series, Carla Peterson, 64, of Yuma, Arizona, shares hers. She has been serving in Ungheni, Moldova since mid-2015 and is due to return home next summer. She sent this essay — opinionated, moving and honest— to Not Exactly Retired, which edited it with her approval: 

I first looked into Peace Corps back in the 70’s while I was still in college. Then I got married, had children and started my career. So much for the Peace Corps.

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Carla with her older son, his wife, her daughter and two granddaughters, in Portland, Ore.

Nine years ago, Pete died from melanoma, two years before he was going to retire and three years before I was going to follow. I was 55. I kept working because I had no plan now that The Plan had blown up.

By the time I was 60, I needed a change from my job at a library. I’m not sure why Peace Corps came to mind again. Maybe I saw something online or in the paper. I called and found out their oldest volunteer was 84 — a lot older than me. So I decided to retire and apply to Peace Corps myself.

I applied in June 2014, interviewed in September and was accepted in October. I went ahead and retired in December, then headed for Washington state to begin saying my goodbyes. My mother lives there as do my brothers and sister. My daughter and two granddaughters lived in Oregon then, and I helped them move to Denver. I hoped to go to Japan to see my older son, too, but I ran out of time.

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Carla with some of her fellow volunteers in Moldova group M30.

My medical clearance took a lot longer than I expected. I understand they don’t want to send us overseas only to have a stroke or heart attack, but both my doctor and I felt like we had to jump through a lot of hoops.

It turned out to be good preparation for the scrutiny that has followed. As a volunteer, you must check in if you leave your site overnight. You can’t leave the country or change your work partner without permission. I’ve also had some smaller annoyances, such as being told to bring dressy clothes I didn’t need or confronting an excessive number of Peace Corps acronyms.

Some volunteers, especially older ones, arrive in Moldova with impressive work experience. Sometimes it’s under-utilized. Communities may be unsure what to do with their volunteer and don’t really understand what having a volunteer entails. Volunteers who were lawyers back home may end up teaching beginning English rather than working in community development. As a volunteer, you need to be flexible and keep a sense of humor.

Learning Romanian has been difficult for me, as for many older volunteers. I’d always been a good student and was shocked I didn’t pick up the language right away. Even after 19 months, I can’t carry on a conversation beyond the basics.

Before I left, I thought, “Two-plus years. Ha! I can do that in my sleep.” Well, the time has gone fast enough, but 27 months is a long time to be away from your family and friends, and from everything you enjoy back home.

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Carla with her host family and work partner

On the other hand, in today’s Peace Corps, and especially in a country such as Moldova, you’re connected constantly through the Internet. Earlier volunteers had to write letters and, if they were lucky, have an occasional phone call. They didn’t have Skype or FaceTime. That must have been rough.

Until recently, the Peace Corps slogan was “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” If I hear that again, I may go screaming from the room. For me, Peace Corps has basically been what I thought it would be. It hasn’t changed my outlook on life. I was a sociology and anthropology major in college, so I have always been fascinated by how different people act together. My time in Moldova has allowed me to compare their customs with our own. As I suspected, we are more alike than different. We work, play, love our families and carry on despite political differences.

Moldova is a lovely country. I love the fields of sunflowers, corn and grapevines, and the grazing animals. There are horse-drawn wagons and people with faces etched with character lines. Flowers decorate every village. People are warm and welcoming but not necessarily interested in changing their lives. Sometimes I think they view us Americans as exotic plants to tend and admire but not necessarily to keep.

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Attending a recent conference on enhancing computer security for libraries.

I don’t know whether I’ve helped develop my community here while working in the local library. Like a doctor, I’ve tried to at least do no harm. I hope those I’ve met will think kindly of America because of their contact with me.

As I look to the future, I want to spend time with my mother, who will turn 96 in February. I can’t wait to catch up with my children, grandchildren, siblings and friends. I’ll do volunteer work in Yuma, but I’m also going to travel, update my townhouse, attend all of the Triple Crown horse races and play some golf. I want to drive. I want to use a clothes dryer again. I want my independence back.

This is the final story in a Not Exactly Retired series about older volunteers serving in the Peace Corps. Thanks to everyone who participated. Unfortunately, we didn’t have room to include all of Moldova’s current and recent older volunteers. You can learn more on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page and the Peace Corps website for older potential applicants.

Older PCVs: 3. Looking to the Future

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Nearly four decades ago, shortly after I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal,  I wrote an op-ed article for The New York Times in which I asked whether I would be able to hold onto everything I had just learned.

“After I’ve lived so long in a truly poor country,” I wrote, “New York seems like Fat City.” I ended the article with the words, “Will I remember?”

For me, as for so many other volunteers, Peace Corps was a transformative experience, changing my view of the world and my own place in it. In fact, I never forgot it, which is what led me to join again years later, this time with Champa, as I approached the other end of my professional career.

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Jim Fletcher, left, poses with three other North Carolina volunteers: myself, Reggie Gravely and Tom Harvey.

The older volunteers with whom we are now serving in Moldova say Peace Corps is altering their perspectives, too, as they look to their post-retirement years.

“Service has changed me,” says Jim Fletcher, a fellow North Carolinian. “I have come to realize that my needs are a great deal less than I thought they were. I use less water when I shower, I can buy good used clothes and look good and be happy, I can and will spend more time here and at home helping others who are less fortunate than I am. My vision of the world has changed because of the wonderful people of Moldova and it has changed for the better.

Deborah Sesek from Cleveland, who served as my mentor before I even came to Moldova, said she has “come to appreciate more the opportunities, privileges and rights afforded me as a U.S. citizen. I am especially grateful for my family, friends and life. In turn I have greater respect and concern for those who are vulnerable and without voice. Peace Corps has expanded my knowledge and world view.”

Other volunteers I interviewed for this series generally concur, saying anyone considering serving in the Peace Corps can expect the experience to change their lives.

fb_img_1437292102368“I had spent the latter years of my working life and the early parts of my retirement in various volunteer activities,” says Tom Corr, who was previously a lawyer in California. “My part-time volunteer activities had relatively visible results, at a modest cost to myself. I thought Peace Corps would be a ‘scaling up’ of that experience. But it is not. Peace Corps service requires a far more consequential commitment, but the ‘results’ of our service may not be visible to us for weeks or months, or maybe not at all.”

“My service here has really made me understand the concept of knowing that I am where I am supposed to be at any given time, and that making the most of the moment and the opportunities presented, whatever the circumstances, is of the highest importance,” says Sandra Dale Woodruff of Tampa.

Peace Corps service can reveal talents and interests previously unknown to a volunteer, even one with decades of experience. Deeporne Beardsley, who recently completed her tour in Moldova as an English education volunteer, discovered she loves teaching even though she had never received teacher training before. “I intend to make use of this newfound ability for the rest of my life,” she says.

img_9585Cynthia Katocs said Peace Corps helped her unwind from the corporate world (as illustrated here with a photo she took in Ialoveni with two familiar mice). “My first days in Peace Corps, I was wound up very tight from working in a corporation for many years,” she says. “The Peace Corps helped me find myself. It helped me look at myself and accept myself for who I am and not what I can bring to a company.”

Serving as a volunteer for two years, far from family and the comforts of home, doesn’t necessarily change what someone does after returning home. “We plan to stick to our plan: remain in Europe after close of service for several months (or we may live abroad), return Stateside (eventually) and continue doing volunteer work in the community where we retire,” says Lisa Gill, who is serving with her husband, Steve.
img_9741Inevitably, though, being a Peace Corps volunteer makes a person think about not only their new surroundings but also what is inside their own heart.
“I joined the Peace Corps because I felt a need to know the world differently and experience a new way of looking at things,” says Donna Barnes, shown here with Champa and me at a festival in Mileștii Mici. “I am still learning, taking things in and enjoying this new experience even though there are times when you question yourself and ask why? Why am I here?”

Brent Beardsley, who is now making the transition back to “normal life” in Tucson with his wife, Dee, pictured together here in the Peace Corps volunteer lounge, is determined to remain active and “not let life become a dull routine. I need to find new challenges.”img_9907

Deborah Sesek has only a half-year to go before she and the other members of her M30 group complete their service and begin the next phase of their lives. “When I return home, I hope to share what I have learned about the beauty of differences and continue to volunteer,” she says.

I am in M31, the group behind Debbie’s, so I don’t have to worry yet about “what’s next?” But I know the question is waiting there, for all of us in Peace Corps, just over the horizon. We will be different people after we finish this intense, challenging, wonderful experience, and we will need to decide anew how to live our lives. What will we hold onto? How will we do it? Just as before: Will we remember?

This is the third story in a Not Exactly Retired series about older volunteers serving in the Peace Corps. Thanks to everyone who participated. Unfortunately, we didn’t have room to include all of Moldova’s current and recent older volunteers. You can learn more on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page and the Peace Corps website for older potential applicants.

Older PCVs: 2. Expect Surprises

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If you’re an older American thinking of joining the Peace Corps, or someone younger hoping to do so later in your life, get ready to be surprised.

Jim Fletcher, a retired North Carolina real estate broker now serving as a business advisor in Moldova, was “surprised the most by the bathroom conditions around my school. It has seven holes in the ground separated by 3-foot partitions. Occasionally the boys miss the mark so there is urine and fecal matter right there on the floor. Even in the winter the stench is almost unbearable.”

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Several older volunteer friends who live near us joined us for Nepali food at our house. From left, Cynthia Katocs, Tom Corr, Jim Fletcher, Champa and Donna Barnes. On the right, keeping us all youthful, is Michelle McNeary.

Donna Barnes, who worked for years as a professor at Howard University, was surprised by the lack of open opinions and thought. “There is very little thinking outside the box among most Moldovans,” she said. “It’s almost as though if it is not written somewhere, then it is not something to think about.”

Carla Peterson, who came to Moldova from Arizona, in the maroon blouse below, says her “biggest surprise was finding out I have no affinity for learning another language!”

Lisa Gill, a Peace Corps volunteer along with her husband, Steve, didn’t expect to encounter so much “defeatism and dourness.”

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For many of Moldova’s older Peace Corps volunteers, though, the biggest — and most pleasant — surprise has been the close friendships they’ve formed with other volunteers of all ages, as well as with Moldovans.

“I was surprised to have made so many friends,” said Cynthia Katocs, who came from Seattle. “As an older volunteer, my first concern was that I would be isolated around the younger volunteers. To my surprise, I’ve made many wonderful friends among both the older and younger volunteers.”

“It never occurred to me that joining Peace Corps would give me one of the best opportunities for new friendships and in-depth conversations with fellow Americans,” agrees Sandra Dale Woodruff from Tampa. The experience of serving together as volunteers leads to “a growing understanding and greater awareness of our own racial and cultural diversity in the U.S.,” she says.

Older volunteers interviewed by Not Exactly Retired for this series also spoke warmly of their friendships with work partners and neighbors in Moldova, the small former Soviet state where they’ve come for 27 months of training and service. “One woman who I adore always tries to speak English with me as we meet on the street,” Katocs says. “But the most endearing friend I made was a neighbor who always kisses me on both cheeks when she sees me. She always has a kind word to say.”

“Moldovans of all ages have great respects for older people, especially teachers,” says Deeporne Beardsley, who recently completed her service along with her husband, Brent. She is pictured above in Călăraşi with her senior partner teacher Efimia Dragan; on the right is Brent with Vasilii Goncairi, a potter. “It is surprising just how well Moldovans treat older people,” Brent writes from their home in Tucson. “They really look out for them. Moldova is a very poor country, the poorest in Europe, but they are very friendly and share what they have. We were regularly invited to events and celebrations, and given the best seats.  We were also given things just because they wanted to share.”

Lisa Gill, who is volunteering with her husband, and others say they’ve encountered some ageism as volunteers, from both Moldovans and Americans. Some say people can’t understand why an older American would leave the comforts of family and home to serve in a developing country.

img_20161129_104959“I’ve been surprised by host country nationals’ reaction to my age,” says Deborah Sesek, a former labor lawyer in Cleveland, shown here (in the blue sweater) attending a meeting with the Association for the Elderly in Ruseștii Noi, where she is posted. “Here in Moldova, most people retire in their late fifties. They assume I was retired before I joined Peace Corps, which isn’t true. When I tell them I was working until I left, they often just shake their heads.”

Having extensive life experience and, in many cases, previous travels, older volunteers are generally familiar with the surprises and bumps that life presents. Tom Harvey, who managed restaurants and worked in other businesses before joining the Peace Corps, said he has “not experienced any cultural shock, which is not to say that Moldovan culture is without its shocking peculiarities.”

What’s most important, many say, is for prospective Peace Corps volunteers of all ages to expect the unexpected — and to embrace it.

“It’s awfully hard to predict what will surprise me,” says Valerie Harden, an older teacher scheduled to come with Moldova’s next Peace Corps group, in mid-2017. “It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if I could predict it ahead of time.”

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Julie Allison, from Arkansas, pictured above, will be joining Harden. They are among the latest in a line of older volunteers stretching back more than 50 years to when President Kennedy established the agency. Allison knows she cannot predict the future but hopes “my granddaughters would be proud to say, ‘My grandmother is a Peace Corps volunteer in Eastern Europe!’”

This is the second story in a Not Exactly Retired series about older volunteers serving in the Peace Corps. Thanks to everyone who participated. Unfortunately, we didn’t have room to include all of Moldova’s current and recent older volunteers. You can learn more on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page and the Peace Corps website for older potential applicants.

Older PCVs: 1. Insights and Tips

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Older Americans who think about joining the Peace Corps have lots of questions. Those who actually sign up have even more questions as they prepare to quit their jobs, say goodbye to their families and head overseas for 27 months.

Valerie Harden, for example (pictured above studying Romanian). Lately she’s been wondering “what will it be like to live with people whose everyday routines are so different from anything I’m accustomed to.” Or Julie Allison. She’s unsure what clothes to buy and whether she’ll be able to learn a new language. “Will I have any friends my age?” she asks. “Will my closest PCV friend be the age of my granddaughter?”

Harden and Allison are both scheduled to leave next spring to become Peace Corps volunteers in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country. They will join hundreds of other Americans age 50 or older now serving worldwide, accounting for about 7 percent of nearly 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers in 63 countries.

What awaits them? Not Exactly Retired sought answers from some current and recently returned older volunteers in Moldova, the small former Soviet state located between Romania and Ukraine.

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“Peace Corps is a challenging and difficult undertaking, and your image of service is probably very different from the reality of service,” says Deborah Sesek of Cleveland, a community development volunteer in Moldova  pictured here feeding dogs at an animal shelter in Ciorescu where she volunteers. “Having practiced law for 35 years and learned to deal with surprises and expect the unexpected, I think it is critically important that volunteers — especially those who are older — approach Peace Corps service with no expectations. Each volunteer’s service is uniquely their own.”

Donna Barnes, a professor at Howard University, thought she was following this advice but found the transition “easier said than done.” Looking back now after seven months in Moldova, she says “I don’t think I was that honest with myself. There are just some things that I am not willing to accept when it comes to living arrangements or personal hygiene.” Now that she’s largely figured it out, she generally loves her job as a health educator in a small village.

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Tom Corr, a former attorney in Berkeley, Calif., has been settling into his village, too, working with colleagues such as Ilie Leahu, the deputy mayor of Băcioi, with whom he is pictured above. The “steady comfort” of his previous life has been “replaced by a confusing and challenging environment” — but he welcomes the change. “You will amaze yourself with your ability to learn and adapt,” he says. “Each day will be measured by small victories and small defeats, and somehow the accounts always balance net positive.”

Corr and other older volunteers from Moldova cite language learning as a particular challenge. They and the other trainees all began Romanian classes shortly after arriving in the country and moving to villages to live with host families.

“Language training is intense,” recalls Jim Fletcher, a retired commercial real estate broker from Raleigh. “It’s a firehose of information six days a week that can be overwhelming.”

Tom Harvey, also from North Carolina, was “tired at the end of the day and could not study well later, so I had to adjust; I would get out of bed early in the morning and study that which I most needed to learn. Afternoons and nights were for reviewing the day’s information. It took me much longer than I expected to settle on a schedule.”

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“Language learning can be more difficult for older volunteers, especially if they have never spoken a language other than English,” says Sandra Dale Woodruff, who came to Moldova from Tampa, pictured above reviewing a Thanksgiving poster with her student Valeria Condrea. “Recognize that even if you never make it to the fluency level to which you aspire, you can still make a big difference in your community. As the English teacher from my village once told me, ‘You only need Romanian for two years, but they are going to need English for their entire lives.’”

Being older has advantages, too. “The older one becomes, the more life experiences one has,” says Deeporne Beardsley, who recently completed her service as an English teacher in Moldova. “They are huge assets that greatly enhance one’s chance of success. In my group, the oldest person was 73 years old and she successfully finished her service.”

Dee’s husband Brent, with whom she served, agrees, saying he came to view his “grey hair as an asset.” Now back together in Tucson, he says, “Moldovans have a lot of respect for older people and the experience that come with their years. This will very likely be true wherever you end up serving.”

That’s been true for Champa and me, who came to Moldova this past June. Being parents and grandparents has given us an instant connection with many of the people we’ve met here.

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“Depending upon your country of service, you may be treated like a frail oldster (and you’re visibly so not) and they will absolutely invade your bubble. Let it go,” says Lisa Gill, who has been serving with her husband, Steve, both in their 60s. (That’s her in the photo, working with a student at a career program in Bălți, where she and Steve live.) “This is not a job. This is a choice. Be openminded, patient and flexible and lead from behind.

Cynthia Katocs, who came to Moldova from Seattle, says, “This is your time to explore the world and use your skills to assist. While volunteering you will pick up many new skills to take with you. Peace Corps pays your bills. They have excellent medical personnel and are there to help you along your way. All you need to do is learn to relax, learn a new culture and be helpful. It is difficult at times but the positive will always outnumber the difficulties.”

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Ultimately, success depends less on a volunteer’s age than on what’s in their heart, says Andrea Benda, 66, from Virginia, shown above with her students at the end of teacher training in Costești. “I would say to anyone considering Peace Corps service that, in whatever manner your age impacts your work and life at home, it will be the same serving in the Peace Corps.”

This is the first story in a Not Exactly Retired series about older volunteers serving in the Peace Corps. Thanks to everyone who participated. Unfortunately, we didn’t have room to include all of Moldova’s current and recent older volunteers. You can learn more on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page and the Peace Corps website for older potential applicants.

100 Posts

This is my 100th post on Not Exactly Retired, which has attracted more than 7,500 visitors since it began in mid-2015. I’ll be celebrating the milestone with a special series about older volunteers in the Peace Corps, starting with my next post.

First, though, especially during this holiday season, I want to pause to tell all of you how much I love producing this blog and appreciate all of you who read it.

img_2535Before Champa and I began our journey 18 months ago, I spent a career doing communications for nonprofit organizations, much of it ghost-writing articles and speeches for others. For four decades, I largely put my own writing aside.

Only after I started Not Exactly Retired did I realize how much I’d missed speaking in my own voice.

Now I get to report first-hand on issues such as immigration or the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal. I can be silly, as with the adventures of our traveling gnome. I can produce videos one week and share recipes the next. Some posts get picked up elsewhere and reach national audiences.

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What I’ve enjoyed most is sharing the incredible experiences Champa and I have had since we walked away from our conventional American lives to pursue new lives of adventure and service, most recently as Peace Corps volunteers in eastern Europe. I treasure the many messages I’ve received and posts I’ve seen from people saying the blog is inspiring them to consider changes in their own lives.

I’ve always been a quick writer, so I can produce the blog while remaining active with everything else I am privileged to be doing as a Peace Corps volunteer. Things go even faster because the layers of my institutional vetting process now work as follows:

Me talking to myself: “So, David, do you approve this?”

Me answering myself: “Yes.”

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-11-22-25-amMost blogs fail. A 2009 New York Times article cited a Technorati survey saying 95 percent of blogs were “essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled.”

Not Exacly Retired is going strong thanks to all of you who read it, offer comments and send encouragement. I hope you enjoy the upcoming series and everything that follows. If you have a friend or relative who is pondering how to live the second half of their lives,  or who just has a sense of adventure, I encourage you to share Not Exactly Retired with them, too. Perhaps they will find it useful, or at least entertaining.

As always, I recommend you subscribe directly to the blog. If you’re just linking to it from Facebook, you’re missing out on some of the best stuff.

I also welcome your comments.

And now, on to the series and whatever comes after that. I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly finished yet.