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.
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.
“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.
Cynthia 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.
Inevitably, 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.”
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.