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Too often, however, communities regard their older residents in an outdated way — as a group requiring assistance rather than as an asset to recruit and empower.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.
For decades they piled up: thousands of family photos and souvenirs that we placed in albums. Three years ago, when Champa and I packed up our house to join the Peace Corps, we were stunned by how many albums we’d accumulated and by how much storage space we needed for them. “We have to sort through these after we return home,” we told ourselves.
This past week, I finished making that vow a reality. For three months I worked several hours daily to whittle dozens of photo albums and boxes of family memorabilia into a single storage bin. I scanned the best images and saved them online and on a hard drive. I also compiled bags of photos to give away to our sons and other relatives.
The job was as tedious as I expected, even though we stopped compiling albums of printed photos several years ago as we shifted to digital photography and occasional printed books.
First I had to remove the photos from the albums, carefully peeling them off the sticky pages and placing them in plastic bags. Then I triaged them into piles to keep, discard or revisit. I created separate bags for big events such as family weddings or overseas trips. I sorted photos into different piles and made lots of difficult decisions about which photos to keep, which to scan and (most often) which to discard.
Those congratulatory cards my parents received when I was born? I tossed out almost all of them. My elementary school report cards? Likewise. Copies of my high school newspaper when I was the editor? I kept most of those but trashed all but a few of the humor columns I wrote for The Brown Daily Herald. It was a no-brainer to keep Champa’s old black-and-white photos of her family in Nepal, since these are few and precious. So, too, for the old photos and documents from my side of the family, like the one you see here of my parents.
I’ve been sharing some of these images with my two sisters. Both of them tell me they hope to tackle their boxes, too, but haven’t yet found the time or courage. That’s surely true for a lot of other people as well, as it was for me when I was working full-time. After we returned home this summer from Moldova, I was too busy with our transition, family gatherings and a writing project to deal with the photos. By the end of last year, though, I ran out of reasons to keep procrastinating. I bought a scanner and got to work.
I’ve learned a few things along the way.
My main advice is to purge ruthlessly. Unless you are famous or planning to commit a crime that will get reporters and historians interested in your back story, no one cares who attended your eighth birthday party. I was a history major in college who went on to write some of our country’s history for the Voice of America, so I respect the importance of historical archives, but who are we kidding? Only your kids and their descendants are likely to care about your photos, and they will probably worry more about receiving too much instead of too little. You’ll do them a big favor by reducing the pile drastically, keeping only the most significant and poignant images. As Marie Kondo might say, find the things that bring you joy.
I’ve also tried to find the “sweet spot” in annotating everything. I noted the time and location for each bag of photos but didn’t label images individually. Yes, this means you’ll never know the names of the couple we met in Greece, who are in one of the photos. But guess what? At this point I don’t care about their names, either.
A scanner is essential, not only to produce a permanent digital record but also to make it easier to give away the printed copies. If my sons or others want any of the digital copies, we can share those, too. My scanner, an Epson V550, has enhanced the images, some of which had faded, so the digital versions are often better. If you prefer, several reputable companies can do the scanning for you, for a fee.
Tackling this big job made me feel productive while Champa and I take a break from our “not exactly retired” adventures. Now that I’ve finished, I guess I need to find a new project to keep me busy, so I won’t start driving her crazy. In fact, our garage looks like it needs some spring cleaning.
I was a science writer for much of my career before serving as a volunteer with Peace Corps Moldova. Several months ago, the magazine editor for the National Association of Science Writers asked me to contribute an article for a series on “Science Writers Giving Back.” She just published it and I’m sharing it here, hoping it may inspire some readers — both science writers and others — to apply to the Peace Corps themselves. As the article notes, for me this decision “changed my life [and] broadened my perspective about the world, about America and about myself.”
Here’s a PDF file of the magazine; the article is on page 8.
Thanks to NASW’s Lynne Friedmann for inviting me to write this!
“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.