If you’re an American who donated to a charity on “Giving Tuesday” or is volunteering with a community group, does that make you like people in other parts of the world?
That’s the question I explored recently with volunteer leaders around the globe for an article I wrote, just published by Activate Good, a Raleigh-based organization that promotes volunteerism in North Carolina’s Triangle region.
You may be surprised by some of what I found. India’s largest volunteer group has to deal with 22 official languages. HandsOn Bogotá says it “has a lot to learn” from U.S. volunteering. Volunteer groups from Paris to Singapore are scrambling to maintain their services amid the pandemic.
I hope you enjoy the article — and check out Activate Good’s excellent work while you’re on their website. You’ll also find a link to the Points of Light Global Network to help you get involved with volunteer groups elsewhere in the United States and around the world.
Top image: iVolunteer, India. Bottom image: Volunteer Ireland.
More than 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers from around the world arrived recently in North Carolina and other states after being evacuated because of the coronavirus.
They need our help — and they have something to teach us.
The volunteers have returned to Greensboro from Ukraine, to Raleigh from Malawi, to Cary from Panama and to Asheville from Ethiopia. They’ve come from South Africa, Guatemala and elsewhere — 61 countries in all. It’s the first time the Peace Corps has evacuated its volunteers worldwide.
The North Carolina Peace Corps Association, like its counterparts across the country, has been organizing to assist the evacuees, few of whom have jobs lined up. They don’t receive unemployment benefits and their health insurance is temporary.
Of course, millions of other Americans are out of work, too, wondering how they’re going to buy food and pay their rent. The Peace Corps evacuees share this economic stress along with having suddenly left distant villages where they were assisting teachers, organizing health projects and working in other ways with some of the world’s poorest communities. Now, after a difficult trip, they’re back home, maybe still under quarantine.
They may not be ready yet to focus on a job hunt or to hear how lucky they are to eat barbecue again. Many of them didn’t want to be here, at least not yet.
I can only imagine how they feel. When Champa and I returned to North Carolina from our Peace Corps service in Eastern Europe two years ago, after months of preparation, we needed time to readjust to things as simple as drinking water from the tap. We were happy to be reunited with our family and friends but missed our Moldovan friends.
Peace Corps Volunteers are renown for their resilience but those who were just evacuated could use some help. Even with everything else going on, other Americans should look for ways to assist them. The Peace Corps itself needs political support and resources to respond appropriately. (An online petition calls on the federal government to provide the evacuees with appropriate benefits.)
In return, these newly returned volunteers have a valuable perspective to share at this moment of worldwide anxiety.
They’ve just been living alongside people in other countries, so can help us see how the world is more connected than “us” and “them,” especially during a global crisis. Our country is not alone in facing extraordinary medical challenges and economic disruption, and it has greater resources than the countries where volunteers were serving.
The Peace Corps also exemplifies the human power of service, as millions of North Carolinians have been demonstrating recently, most notably with our heroic medical teams and first responders. More broadly, people across our region have been stocking grocery shelves, working at pharmacies or just staying home to reduce transmission rates. They are ordering meals to support local restaurants, checking on elderly neighbors and helping in other ways. The crisis has brought out the best in them.
In other words, Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t different from other Americans. They are just one example of how we all can enrich our own lives while serving others.
Champa and I began our Peace Corps service when we were 63 years old. We were among the hundreds of older Americans who join every year. The two of us ended up having a life-changing experience and feeling like we accomplished a lot. Thus, a final lesson, especially for people nearing retirement, which is to be unafraid about redefining your life and following your heart to pursue the Peace Corps or some other dream. As I discuss in my new book,you never know what might happen tomorrow.
Like a quarter-million Americans since President Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961, the volunteers and trainees who just came home answered our country’s call for service. I hope people in North Carolina and across the country will reach out, thank them, lend a hand and then listen to their stories.
When Champa and I returned to Durham after serving abroad for two years in the Peace Corps, I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to continue volunteering in my own community.
I assumed there were local nonprofit groups that could use my professional skills, especially for free. When I called around and searched online, though, I couldn’t find a good match. Eventually, I created an informal volunteer role for myself with the North Carolina partnership program that assists Moldova, where we served as Peace Corps volunteers, and I resumed volunteering at Urban Ministries, but who knows what I missed?
I am not alone. Across the Triangle and more widely, many older Americans now view retirement as much more than leisure. They consider it a second act, a new life stage of personal growth and service that may last for decades. These retirees are still sharp, still active, and a tremendous potential resource for nonprofit organizations that could tap their expertise in various fields.
Too often, however, communities regard their older residents in an outdated way — as a group requiring assistance rather than as an asset to recruit and empower.
These are wonderful and impressive people — caring, thoughtful and professional. They are working hard on missions such as helping retirees obtain medical care or promoting volunteerism broadly.
Generally, though, older volunteers are only a small part of their missions, which were established before the big shift began in how Americans think about retirement.
For instance, our local volunteer center does great work but is also busy with high school students and many others. Websites such as VolunteerMatch and organizations ranging from AARP to RSVP serve important roles, too. Yet many older residents still fail to connect with worthy organizations that could benefit from their experience in writing grants, preparing budgets, building websites or managing staffs.
To be sure, many retired citizens do serve as volunteers — teaching literacy classes, building homes with Habitat for Humanity and much more. Some volunteer throughtheir religious organization or a former employer. Many retirement communities and senior centers have their own volunteer programs, often with a focus on serving the needs of other retired people.
We need to be more strategic about this, as some communities around the country have demonstrated. A leader of the Encore Boston Network told me about their system to train older volunteers, match them with organizations and provide ongoing support. He described similar efforts in Phoenix, Denver and elsewhere. Many of the volunteers take on assignments that draw on their special expertise. Springfield, Missouri has an impressive Give 5 program that brings groups of retired people on a bus to local nonprofits, helping them find one to match their interests.
I don’t mean in any way to downplay the many people, of all ages, who are generously rolling up their sleeves across our region to deliver meals, comfort the sick and more, or the excellent organizations that work with them. But as more and more older Americans look for new meaning in their lives, communities like Durham that attract them should recognize their good fortune and act deliberately to match them in meaningful volunteer roles, which would also help retirees avoid social isolation.
The opportunity is compelling and I am optimistic we can take advantage of it. As I’ve discussed it with local leaders and stakeholders, they’ve generally been responsive and enthusiastic. They see the possibilities. Several key players are interested in trying to make Durham a leader in this arena. Everything I’ve encountered so far reminds me why Champa and I are lucky to live in such a progressive and caring community.
If some older folks prefer to just play golf or tend their gardens, they’ve earned that choice. The two of us enjoy traveling and spending time with our grandchildren, too. But we also want to continue the spirit of volunteerism we found so fulfilling in the Peace Corps.
I published an article Thursday, May 16, in the Raleigh News & Observer about North Carolina’s extraordinary partnership with Moldova. I‘m sharing the article here along with photos of an April 27 conference in Raleigh where teachers, nurses, politicians and others discussed the partnership. My Peace Corps volunteer colleague Jim Fletcher (pointing below) and I were among the speakers.
Later this week, North Carolina will renew its partnership with a little-known country that’s been bringing out the best in our state’s people for more than two decades.
North Carolina’s National Guard has been helping the country’s defense forces throughout this time. Librarians from Wilmington and across the state have sent it more than 350,000 books. Nurses, dentists, pharmacists and others have provided medical assistance. A Hendersonville group has renovated some of its orphanages and schools.
North Carolina recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its extraordinary partnership with the country and the amazing thing is that many North Carolinians have never heard of the country, much less about the partnership.
It’s the Republic of Moldova, a former Soviet state one-fourth the size of North Carolina that’s wedged near the Black Sea between Romania and Ukraine. It’s the poorest country in Europe, with a struggling economy, political instability and other problems. It’s also beautiful, with lush vineyards and farmland, a rich culture and wonderful people.
My wife, Champa, and I had barely heard of it, either, when we left our home in Durham three years ago to serve there as Peace Corps volunteers in a group that included volunteers from Asheville, Charlotte, Boone, Winston-Salem and Raleigh. We were posted to a small city where we lived with a host family and I worked at the library while Champa taught at the school. (I described our adventures on my blog, Not Exactly Retired.)
While we were there, we kept hearing about Moldova’s partnership with, of all places, North Carolina, which turned out to be a big deal.
The partnership began with North Carolina’s National Guard assisting Moldova’s defense forces when the Soviet Union ended and Moldova became independent. The partnership has grown to include civic, educational and other organizations, including religious groups that range from Christian groups based in Claremont and Dublin to the Greensboro Jewish Federation.
In 1999, North Carolina and Moldova signed a collaborative agreement through the NATO Partnership for Peace. Governors of both parties have renewed it regularly and another renewal is planned when a delegation led by N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall travels to Moldova’s capital later this week.
“North Carolinians should be proud of this partnership,” former U.S. Ambassador to Moldova Michael Kirby said at a recent conference in Raleigh that brought together participants from across the state. “I’ve never seen another relationship like this.”
The partnership has been “an important force for peace, an important force for democracies going forward,” agreed Rep. David Price, who recently visited Moldova as part of a bipartisan Congressional group.
In addition to receiving support within its own borders, Moldova has sent groups of experts to North Carolina to learn about topics ranging from judicial reform to agriculture. In turn, North Carolinians have benefited, too.
“I’m from Eastern North Carolina, where Raleigh is hours away,” said Elaine Justice, principal of an elementary school in Swansboro whose teachers and students interact with a Moldovan school. “Our kids, by being connected through this, are growing. They don’t just see themselves as living on the edge of North Carolina. They’re becoming global citizens.”
This past summer, when my wife and I returned to Durham, we found America beset with political rancor. It’s been a relief to get involved in this bipartisan partnership where Republicans and Democrats, military veterans and university students and people of diverse ages, faiths and ethnicities are working together to provide assistance and form friendships with people in a struggling democracy, exemplifying what’s best about North Carolina. As Sec. Marshall told the conference, the program’s success is “due to people with a heart who are willing to share it.”
I hope more people get involved in the partnership and perhaps even visit Moldova. It’s a fascinating place that’s waiting to bring out the best in them, too.
David Jarmul, the former head of news and communications at Duke University, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova with his wife, Champa.
“Mr David, what happened to the American Government?”
That’s what Victoria, one of the students in the English conversation class I taught while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova, asked me on Facebook last week. “I see news everywhere,” she told me. (That’s Victoria making the V sign at our group’s farewell dinner.)
I know what she means and the news has worried me even more. After spending more than two years in a little-known part of the former Soviet Union where people are deeply cynical about politics and the rule of law, I’m unnerved by what I’ve encountered in my own country since returning home this past summer.
Champa and I were proud to represent the United States when we arrived in Moldova with our group in mid-2016. That was before we had a president who disdains international alliances, demonizes refugees and calls developing countries “shitholes.” It’s possible his description didn’t include Moldova, whose population is white, but it seems even worse to me if it didn’t. As an American, was I supposed to be proud that I was serving in a country where people are poor but at least are white?
Michelle Obama championed the “Let Girls Learn” initiative that brought new opportunity to women and girls around the globe, encouraging more girls to go to school, start businesses and pursue careers. The initiative funded the Peace Corps grant through which our Ialoveni library was able to create a new family room, above, and programs for mothers and children. Just before we received the grant, though, we were told to no longer refer to the initiative as “let girls learn,” which was linked so closely to Michelle Obama.
I came to love Moldova during my service there and have recently gotten involved with a partnership program between Moldova and my home state of North Carolina. (Rodney Maddox and Lora Sinigur, who help run the program with Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, are shown left.) I continue to admire the perseverance and grace of Moldovans in the face of hardship. Despite its rich agriculture, Moldova’s economy offers few economic opportunities. Many people have left the country to seek work elsewhere. Corruption is widespread. Reform efforts have been thwarted.
The Moldovans I met are wonderful people who nonetheless have a dark view of life. In his book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner called Moldova the unhappiest country on Earth.
The United States remains far wealthier but I fear we are heading in the same direction in terms of how we view our collective future. Since coming home, I’ve seen a level of cynicism that scares me. I don’t recall people ever feeling so anxious and frustrated about the possibility of change, even during the darkest days of the Vietnam War or the Watergate crisis.
This is not the America I knew when I left. Seeing it with new eyes has made the contrast sharper for me.
The midterm election gave me hope that Americans will not surrender to despair, that they will fight to once again make our country the kind of place we can all extol when living and traveling abroad. This past Sunday, Champa and I served lunch at a local soup kitchen with our friend Celeste, right, who also served in the Peace Corps, in West Africa during the Vietnam War. She reminded me how challenging it was to be asked questions then about America. Eventually things got better. I’m hopeful they can again.
I’m not speaking here for the Peace Corps, which is non-political and bipartisan. I also continue to hold the Moldovan people closely in my heart. It’s just that more than six months have passed since I completed my service and friends keep asking me what it’s felt like to come home.
My answer is that I don’t want us to become as hopeless and cynical as the people I met back in Moldova or, for that matter, in many other countries around the world where strongmen pursue their own interests, lies abound and darkness obscures light. I want us to trust each other again and embrace the optimism that is our birthright as Americans.
I want Victoria to keep watching because somehow my country is going to make things right.
Kate Hughey usually teaches fourth graders in Charlotte, N.C., but on Monday she taught a crowded room of English teachers in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova. She described her collaborations with fellow teachers on student projects that blend multiple subjects and demonstrated how to make videos easily with homemade “green screens.”
“We don’t do cross-disciplinary projects in Moldova, so this is really interesting for us. It’s a model we can adapt for our situation,” said Daniela Munca-Aftenev, president of theAcademy for Innovation and Change through Education(top photo, left), which hosted the talk at Biblioteca Hasdeu along the city’s main boulevard.
It was Kate’s first day in a week of activities in Moldova and the latest in a partnership that has linked North Carolina and this East European nation since 1999.
I was invited because I recently assisted the partnership as it prepared to ship hundreds of English-language books to Moldova with two NGOs. I worked with Bob Gingrich, Peace Corps Moldova’s director of management and operations and a fellow North Carolinian (left in photo), who will soon distribute the books among PCVs to share with their host communities.
I ate lunch with Kate before her talk so she could tell me more about the partnership and I could answer some of her questions about Moldova, which she is visiting for the first time, thanks to a grant from World Affairs Council of Charlotte. Kate, who teaches at Charlotte Latin School, is among the pioneers of a school-to-school program that connects teachers and students in Moldova and North Carolina. Her students recently collected 50 boxes of reading books for schools here.
Also arriving here this past weekend was Willow Stone, a student from Clayton High School who will live with a Moldovan host family and study Russian.
Elaine Marshall, North Carolina’s secretary of state, has guided the partnership as it has expanded beyond its initial collaboration between the N.C. National Guard and the Defense Forces of Moldova to include private firms, civic organizations, non-profit agencies and individuals, with planning committees in both North Carolina and Moldova.
Its projects have ranged from education to medicine, culture and the economy. The Greensboro Jewish Federation assisted a Moldovan Jewish community. Officers of the U.S. Armed Forces helped build a playground for the children of Moldovan military families. The University of North Carolina School of Dentistry sent teams to assist an orphanage. My former colleagues at Duke University and others have sent medical supplies. When I tried to help someone here find information for the local wine industry, an expert from North Carolina State University responded to help us.
The exchanges have gone in the other direction as well, with Moldovans spending time at schools, universities, companies and other institutions in North Carolina.
Kate will be giving several presentations this week, visiting the Ministry of Education and touring some of Moldova’s touristic sites. The Moldovans who attended on Monday picked up not only new teaching ideas but also armloads of free books to bring back to their schools. Some of them have also interacted over the years with Peace Corps Moldova’s English Education program, in which Champa has served.
The two of us have only a week left in Peace Corps Moldova, where we’ve served alongside volunteers from Asheville, Charlotte, Boone, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Gastonia, Rocky Mount and other parts of our state. We look forward to working with the partnership ourselves after we return to our home in Durham.
If you’re an older American looking to continue pursuing a life of service and adventure after spending two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, you can find lots of helpful resources online.
I know because I’ve been searching through them myself as Champa and I enter the final lap of our time in Moldova. Just like our younger colleagues, we’re thinking about what we’ll do after ringing the traditional farewell bell here this summer. While many of them have been checking out graduate schools or possible jobs, though, we’ve been looking for ideas that better fit our stage of life.
Let me share some of what I’ve found:
Senior Nomads, a blog by retired Seattle couple Debbie and Michael Campbell, chronicles their full-time travels since 2013, staying in Airbnbs while visiting more than 68 countries. As Debbie noted in a recent post, they now spend money on airfares, Airbnbs and travel insurance instead of a home. They’ve been able to spend lots of time every year with their children and grandchildren and to keep in touch with friends while pursuing a life that, at least to me, feels a lot more interesting than playing golf every day.
Other sites offers leads about short- or longer-term employment overseas. Transitions Abroad is a good one for English teachers. Modern-Day Nomads highlights “top travel jobs & inspiration for globetrekking, creative professionals.” (It hasn’t been updated recently but its listings for November included one for a seasonal sous chef at Denali National Park.)
Champa and I want to continue providing service after Peace Corps. I’ve been finding new inspiration for this at Encore.org, which promotes “second acts for the greater good.” I’m thinking now about how I can best apply my own skills to make a similar impact, whether back home in Durham or more broadly. My niece, Juliana, will be enrolling this fall at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, with a special interest in social entrepreneurship; I may need to borrow some of her course materials.
Good online resources exist to help older Americans find volunteer opportunities. HandsOn Triangle serves our North Carolina community. Similar sites exist elsewhere. AARP’s Create the Good serves older volunteers nationwide. There are also excellent organizations and websites aimed at older volunteers, such as the Executive Service Corps and Reserve. Most seek to match older Americans with positions that make good use of their particular skills.
I regularly find interesting articles on Next Avenue and from journalists such as Richard Eisenberg and Kerry Hannon who cover retirement issues. My favorite writer covering this field is Nancy Collamer (my sister), whose “My Lifestyle Career” site and recent 100 Great Second-Act Career Resources cover many of the issues I’ve discussed here, as well as “flexible gigs,” online courses for seniors and resources for everyone from foodies to pet lovers.
For the next five months, Champa and I will remain focused on the rest of our Peace Corps service. Here, too, plentiful online resources exist to motivate us. Not long ago, one RPCV group selected the 8 Best Blogs to Follow About Peace Corps, a list that included the blog you’re reading now. (Thanks, Friends & RPCVs of Guyana!)
Champa and I are most looking forward to taking a break and spending time with our family and friends after being away for so long. We really miss them, as you can tell from these photos we took during our trip home last summer. Simultaneously, we know we will eventually catch our breath and get serious about “what’s next?”
If anyone reading this has suggestions or wants to share something from their own lives, we’ll read your comments with interest — and perhaps others will, too.
On Monday, the library where I work in Ialoveni, Moldova unveiled an exhibit about North Carolina — the home state of “Domnul David” and “Doamna Champa.”
The exhibit features brochures about the Wright Brothers monument in Kitty Hawk, the Biltmore mansion in Asheville, the NASCAR museum in Charlotte and attractions across the Triangle. It also offers information about where to taste wine, go fishing or ride a hot-air balloon in North Carolina.
Before we came to Moldova with the Peace Corps, I gathered these brochures at the North Carolina tourism office on Route 85, just south of the Virginia border. I brought them with me and now finally put them to good use. As I described in an earlier post, Champa and I have also shared souvenir postcards about Durham.
My library colleague, Doamna Stella, and her daughter did a great job of arranging the new exhibit, which is in the center of the library. It’s the latest example of the close ties between Moldova and Carolina du Nord, two places I’m proud to call home.
Duke Chapel, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the American Tobacco Campus are among the destinations I’ll be featuring today.
Wait, you’re thinking, isn’t this blog about our experiences as “not exactly retired” Peace Corps volunteers in Eastern Europe?
Yes, exactly. On Thursday, we handed out souvenir postcards of Durham, N.C., as prizes for students competing in geography quizzes we held during two presentations we gave in the town of Criuleni. Watching them react to the Durham bull and other landmarks from back home was an experience we won’t forget.
My friends at the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau gave me the cards before Champa and I left to join the Peace Corps last spring. Thanks anew to Shelly Green (@DCVBPrez) and her colleagues for helping us show off our home town with people we’ve met in Moldova. (Durham! Fresh Daily with great restaurants, arts and entertainment!)
As I’ve written before, North Carolina has a special relationship with Moldova. Just in my group, we have volunteers from Asheville, Boone, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh and, of course, Durham.
Champa and I went to Criuleni to help commemorate Peace Corps Week, the annual celebration of President Kennedy’s founding of the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. We joined other volunteers and country director Tracey Hébert-Seck in speaking at a week-long series of events organized by volunteers Chris Flowers and Rebecca Lehman. Further to the south, in Causeni, volunteer Anne Reed and her colleagues are planning a big event on Saturday to celebrate Peace Corps Week and International Women’s Month.
In our two presentations, Champa and I highlighted Peace Corps activities around the world. Our quizzes challenged the students to match photographs of Peace Corps volunteers with the countries where they served. In the middle photo of the three-photo strip above, for example, the boy is guessing which Peace Corps photos came from Albania, China or Swaziland. We also showed a video of our 2015 trip to Nepal and this video featuring people from 156 countries joining together to sing “All You Need Is Love.”
Duke and UNC will compete again on Thursday evening in college basketball’s greatest rivalry, so it’s a good day to share my answer to anyone in Moldova who asks where Champa and I live in the United States: “Carolina du Nord” (Cair-o-LEE-na du nord).
Five other members of my Peace Corps group also call North Carolina home. As you can see in the top photo, we hail from Asheville, Boone, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Durham and Raleigh. From the left, we’re Tim Crowley, Alex Bostian, Tom Harvey, Reggie Gravely, myself, Champa and Jim Fletcher. The six of us are now working as volunteers across Moldova.
To give you a sense of scale, North Carolina (one of 50 U.S. states) is four times larger than Moldova, with roughly three times as many people.
North Carolina is famous for its barbecue; Moldova is known for its wine; North Carolina had Andy Griffith. Moldova has Andy’s Pizza. North Carolina produced the basketball star Stephen Curry; Moldova’s national hero is Stephan cel Mare. On and on it goes.
It’s no wonder Moldovans and Tarheels have formed close ties. For more than 20 years, the N.C. Army National Guard has been helping to modernize Moldova’s military and police, providing training in anti-terrorism, cyber defense, emergency medicine and other areas. In 1999, North Carolina established an official partnership with Moldova, which now includes the efforts of numerous private firms, civic organizations and nonprofit agencies. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who oversees the partnership, has visited Moldova at least 10 times.
North Carolinians have built playgrounds and a medical clinic, trained medical personnel and provided computers in Moldova. They’ve hosted more than 250 Moldovan farmers and hundreds of students at Southeastern Community College. UNC-Chapel Hill offers online education assistance. NC State pairs grade-school classrooms with Moldovan counterparts.
A personal story: When I contacted the NC State agricultural extension service to see if they had any information that might help wine growers in my district, they responded by telling me about one of their professors who had just returned from Moldova to provide workshops on the subject.
North Carolina’s most visible presence in Moldova is its Peace Corps volunteers, who are teaching in schools, working with local governments and libraries and promoting small business efforts. Our ranks also include Mark Gilchrist, left, a volunteer in the group ahead of us. An article by Mark, who previously worked for the News Reporter in Columbus County, describes the collaboration in greater detail. Mark also produces an excellent blog and newsletter.
Another fellow volunteer and blogger, Rebecca Lehman, recently hosted a program that featured the many ties between North Carolina and Moldova. She produced the chart at the top of this post. Curiously, Rebecca herself came to Moldova from Cincinnati. She’s a remarkably nice person for someone who hails from a state with the audacity to call itself the birthplace of aviation just because the Wright Brothers came from Dayton.
The true home of aviation, of course, is Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright Brothers first rose into the sky. Here in Moldova, regardless of which team we’re cheering for tonight, and despite all of the political turmoil of the past couple of years, we’re proud to call it our home, too.