In this time of the Covid 19 pandemic, when we are personally distancing and limited in our ability to travel, it is a good time to reflect on our interests and abilities and plan for future volunteering missions. Reading about the travel and volunteering experiences of others is an engaging way to gain insight into how to plan our own quests.
At the age of 62, David and Champa Jarmul decided to set off on a new life path. That new path included domestic and international travel and service as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova. David, in the article below, writes about some of his and Champa’s Peace Corps experiences. He also discusses the impact of Covid-19 on the Peace Corps community. The article is an interesting and engaging prelude to his new book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.
Enjoy the article.
Not Exactly Retired
The COVID-19 pandemic has blocked older Americans from serving overseas in what has been the best-known international volunteering program for more than half a century: the Peace Corps.
In March, for the first time ever, the agency evacuated all of its volunteers and trainees worldwide, about 7,000 of them. Older Americans were among those serving in 61 countries, as they have since President Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961.
The past several months have been tough. The evacuees returned home suddenly to an economy in crisis. Their hearts were still in the foreign community where they’d been serving. Many older evacuees had previously sold or rented out their home, sold their car and quit their job.
As it now plans to return to the field, the Peace Corps says it will be guided by CDC guidelines, which state older Americans face increased risk for severe illness from the virus. The agency says it will review every applicant’s medical situation individually and “not exclude healthy applicants because they are older.”
Regardless of what happens with the pandemic, I hope older Americans interested in serving overseas will keep the Peace Corps as a top option.
A few years ago, my wife, Champa, and I left our conventional American lives in Durham, N.C., at the age of 62 to travel and then serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova, a small former Soviet state between Ukraine and Romania. We’d had many blessings in our lives and wanted to give back and challenge ourselves. Our health was good, our parents were gone and our two adult sons were doing well. It was the right time to make a change.
Some of our friends were shocked but joining the Peace Corps in our sixties was less exotic than they imagined. Our Peace Corps group included older volunteers from Harlem to California, who had worked previously as a real estate agent, a university professor, an attorney, a city manager, a small business owner and in other professions. They were single, married, gay, straight and of diverse ethnicities.
Serving in our sixties was challenging. We found it harder than before to learn a new language. We sweated in overstuffed minibuses in the summer and slipped on sheets of ice in the winter. We had no car, no air conditioning and a long list of Peace Corps rules and regulations to contend with.
Yet we are so glad we did it.
We formed close friendships with both our fellow volunteers and our Moldovan colleagues. Champa worked with another teacher on a big project to create elaborate costumes and props for the school’s drama program. When they unveiled them at a big celebration attended by the American ambassador, the mayor and others, everyone cheered as the students paraded in their new finery.
I helped my library create a beautiful new family room and collaborated with a local singer to produce a popular music video about our community. I also taught young entrepreneurs and helped launch library programs on computer coding and robotics.
The biggest impact of our two years, though, was on ourselves. Like many volunteers before us, we received more than we gave, returning home with a fresh perspective on our country and our own lives.
I’d served as a Peace Corps Volunteer back in my twenties, in Nepal, which is where I met Champa. In many ways, I found it easier this time, and not only because she and I served together. Moldovans respected our age. We talked as peers with our older colleagues, sharing glasses of wine and photos of our families. Before I even started my job at the library, they checked me out online and saw I had relevant work experience.
Peace Corps service also gave us a chance to learn about a part of the world we might never have visited otherwise. During our vacations, Champa and I explored much of Moldova and Eastern Europe. We always felt safe and the price was much lower than in, say, Paris or Tokyo.
Throughout my service, I published a blog that ended up attracting readers in more than one hundred countries. Some back home wrote me to say they were inspired to consider applying themselves. I hope they and other older Americans will not be deterred by the pandemic from pursuing their Peace Corps dream. It’s a challenge worth waiting for.
David Jarmul served twice as a Peace Corps Volunteer, most recently in Moldova, an adventure he describes in a new book, Not Exactly Retired: A Life-Changing Journey on the Road and in the Peace Corps.