“Just as the pandemic has upended the lives of students and workers, it is derailing the plans of many retirees,” Susan Garland writes in today’s New York Times. “More than six months into the pandemic, many retirees, after what some described as a period of fear and hopelessness, are finding ways to adapt.”
Susan’s excellent article about how active retirees are responding to the pandemic features Champa and me, along with OLLI at Duke’s Chris McLeod and others. Thanks to Susan and to Jeremy Lange for the great photo. Here’s the opening section, about the two of us:
David Jarmul and his wife, Champa, long envisioned what their retirement would look like. After returning from a two-year Peace Corps stint in Moldova in 2018, the couple, both 67, planned extensive travel, including trips to the Baltics, West Africa and Sri Lanka.
“Travel is our passion — it’s what we love to do,” said Mr. Jarmul, who retired in 2015 as head of news and communications for Duke University.
For now, the two are living a Covid-19 retirement — packed with volunteer and social pursuits but reconfigured for a social distancing world. Mr. Jarmul is delivering groceries to a local food pantry and engaging in a get-out-the-vote letter-writing campaign. And the two are caring for their 15-month-old grandson — playing hide-and-seek and reading books — while their son and daughter-in-law work from home and supervise the online classes of two older sons.
“We are happy to spend the time with him. It’s helpful for our son and daughter-in-law,” said Mr. Jarmul, author of Not Exactly Retired, a book about the couple’s Moldova experience.
As for his retirement dreams, Mr. Jarmul considers himself fortunate compared to those with true hardship. “Despairing is not a great solution,” he said. “We are trying deliberately to fill our lives with activities that give us meaning — remaining connected to our friends and being good members of the community.”
The pandemic grinds on. The election is approaching. Wildfires are blazing. And now Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died.
I’m old enough to remember the tumult of 1968 and the Watergate years, but these past several months have been an even bigger challenge to our individual and collective sanity.
On a Zoom call recently, some friends decribed how they’ve been coping with the unrelenting stress, from going on hikes to watching webcams of wild bears. Others have been binge-watching Netflix, baking bread or learning hobbies. Many are struggling.
I’ve found relief in exercising, reading and spending time with our family, as well as in something I hadn’t viewed previously as a way to relieve anxiety: my volunteering.
I assist North Carolina’s partnership with Moldova, transport donations for a food bank, write letters to potential voters and provide editorial or financial assistance to causes I support. Recently I’ve also been helping to launch a program for older volunteers to assist Durham community groups, one of which I’m helping myself.
I didn’t pursue these activities so as to ease my own sense of unease and despair during a pandemic. But that’s what they’ve ended up doing for me.
As I experienced in the Peace Corps a few years ago, serving others shifts your attention from yourself. It reminds you how lucky you are. It connects you to the wider community and gives meaning to your life.
For me, the pandemic has also highlighted how volunteering can reduce stress, as scientists have confirmed. A 2015 study by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine found that adults who helped others reported higher levels of positive emotion. “Prosocial behavior moderated the effects of stress on positive affect, negative affect, and overall mental health,” they reported.
Michael Poulin, a University of Buffalo researcher, described it this way: ”When you are thinking about helping other people you’re simply not thinking as much about yourself and your problems … In essence it’s a kind of distraction, but a more satisfying distraction than surfing the Web or binge-watching House of Cards.”
Religious faiths tell us the same thing, that giving enriches the giver.
Don’t get me wrong: I still shudder at the pandemic’s rising death toll and sputter at what I see on the news. I know how important passion can be to spurring political action.
I also recognize that my own modest efforts come from a place of privilege and pale in comparison to those of many other volunteers, not to mention those who’ve been battling the pandemic and saving lives in other ways. While West Coast fire fighters have fighting huge blazes, I have been safe at home, with my wife, free to volunteer. Others face stresses far bigger than mine.
Still, our collective anxiety is real, and I have a suggestion for those feeling overwhelmed as the campaign enters its final stretch. If they are spending hours sharing angry memes on Facebook or Twitter with like-minded friends, ratcheting up their own emotions, they might want to turn off their smartphones and, instead, help a neighbor or organization in need. (Activate Good is a great place to find opportunities here in the Triangle.)
They may find, as I have, that helping others during stress-filled times is a good way to renew their own equilibrium and strength. Based on what we’ve seen so far this year, we’re all going to need it.
That agency is the Peace Corps, in which I served twice as a volunteer.
On Wednesday, the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) highlighted on LinkedIn a talk I gave recently arguing the Peace Corps is way too focused on “development” and not enough on helping Americans and others to learn about each other.
No one is better situated than Peace Corps Volunteers to explain to their fellow Americans that developing countries are not “shitholes” — or to help people around the world see the realities of our own society.
Moreover, it’s their mission to do this. according to the agency’s three goals. One goal is to assist economic development, the other two are to promote cross-cultural understanding. Yet the Peace Corps now devotes almost all of its attention and resources to the first goal, even though returned volunteers say the other two end up mattering the most. This approach makes less sense now than ever before, as some politicians whip up fear about “the other.”
Peace Corps Volunteers can help Americans recognize that foreigners, including Muslims and people of color, share many of their own dreams and are not their enemies — and they can do so while maintaining the agency’s nonpolitical, bipartisan tradition.
The talk was part of NPCA’s “global ideas summit” (also on YouTube), which raised many interesting questions about the future of the Peace Corps — an organization I love and want to see have a bigger impact.
I was friends with Karen Jean (KJ) Hunt before we both left Durham to serve in the Peace Corps. Champa and I were lucky enough to serve before the pandemic. KJ was in Ethiopia (above, with some of her students in Kotu) when the Peace Corps evacuated all of its volunteers worldwide for the first time ever. In a new article for Next Avenue, I describe how the evacuation affected KJ and other older volunteers and what to expect in the months ahead.
Friends from Nepal and Moldova have been contacting us to check on how we’re doing as the pandemic spins out of control in the United States.
I went to those two countries as a Peace Corps Volunteer to provide training and insight from an American. Now they and others look at us and see crowds defying public health guidelines in bars, on beaches and elsewhere, and a death toll topping 140,000. It’s humbling.
Unlike the majority of developed countries that responded to the pandemic with discipline and a respect for science, the United States has acted foolishly and incompetently. Why should anyone take us seriously again?
Millions of Americans have behaved responsibly, even heroically. Doctors, nurses and other front-line workers have been risking their lives to help others. Many teachers will soon return to their classrooms. Others are continuing to sell food, collect trash and perform other essential tasks, often for low wages. Neighbors are helping each other.
Yet the situation is worsening, and it’s our own fault. Especially here in the South, many governors rushed to reopen their states before it was safe. They defied health experts who correctly warned what would happen. N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper has been among the exceptions, largely resisting pressure to reopen too quickly.
Both factors, culture and politics, have surely played a role, and health officials could have done a better job of communicating messages and winning public trust. In any case, here we are. I know Champa and I have been fortunate to ride out the crisis in a comfortable home but I am angry about how many of my fellow Americans are now suffering, especially people of color. Our hospitals are overwhelmed. Businesses keep closing. This didn’t have to happen.
I keep thinking back to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, which I visited just before the pandemic spread out of control. Anne and her family remained quiet in an attic for more than two years before the Nazis discovered them. Here in America, by contrast, millions of people have been unable to last a few months before they insisted on partying. Even now, they reject something as simple as wearing a mask.
One of the three Peace Corps goals is to “promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” It’s ironic our country had to evacuate its Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide just when it needed more than ever to be learning from others.
[Top photo: The hospital entrance in Ilam, Nepal, my first post as a Peace Corps Volunteer.]
One reviewer calls it “a love story and adventure book all in one. A truly inspirational tale.” Another says “it shows how adventure can give new meaning to our lives and make them richer.” Visit the book website for Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.
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.
One of the world’s great private collections of West African art was hidden until recently in the Durham attic of two returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Reggie and Celeste Hodges. Now they’re donating to North Carolina museums many of their hundreds of masks, statues and other precious objects. It’s a remarkable story, which I tell in this article just published by WorldView, the magazine of the National Peace Corps Association.
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.
Family, weddings, classes, projects, trips, a book and 73 episodes of Game of Thrones.
That’s what Champa and I have been doing since we returned to Durham from our Peace Corps service in Moldova one year ago this month.
We were especially busy initially — buying a car, restocking our kitchen and so forth — but our biggest challenge proved to be readjusting to the country we were so proud to represent when we left in mid-2016. We served for more than two years with the mission of helping others and promoting cross-cultural understanding. Then we came home to a new president who insults foreign allies and demonizes immigrants. It’s been a tough transition.
Of course, we’re thankful to be reunited with our family and friends. We’ve reveled in things as simple as driving or drinking water from a tap. Yet we still miss Moldova, every day. We made such good friends there and we now interact with them only on Facebook or with an occasional phone call.
Champa and I didn’t expect our transition to be so hard. We’d traveled a lot. We’d remained closely connected to America while we were gone. I’d served in the Peace Corps previously and she was born in Nepal. So how hard could it be? We didn’t fully appreciate that America wasn’t the only thing that changed. We’d changed, too.
I’m not the same person I was when I walked away from a conventional job four years ago to pursue a new life of service and adventure. I’m now 66 and no longer want a full-time job. Nor do I want to be “retired.” Instead, I continue to explore a third path, this time back in our home town. During the past year, I’ve been refocusing my energies on three new activities:
We also attended four beautiful weddings and took short trips both domestically and abroad. We renewed our subscription to UNC’s Playmakers theater series and, after living without a television for so long, we binge-watched movies and television shows we’d missed, including the entire Game of Thrones series. (Bran won the throne, really?)
Most important, we welcomed a seventh grandchild to our family a few weeks ago.
So life has been good this past year and we know how fortunate we are to be able to say that, just as we were in Moldova. As I’ve begun pursuing this new phase of “not exactly retired,” I’ve been surprised to discover how disorganized our community is in taking advantage of older Americans like me who are eager to share their skills and enthusiasm to address social needs. I think it’s possible to make it much easier for them to do this, both in North Carolina and more widely. In future posts, I’ll be writing more about how I’ve begun working with others to address this opportunity.
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.