After a lifetime of work, 62-year-old Hazel Powell decided to leave her comfortable Scottsdale home and family behind for 27 months of deprivation and a hard job in Eastern Europe.
The recently retired teacher left for Bulgaria, where donkey carts outnumber automobiles. She hopes to make a difference in the lives of the poor villagers she will live with.
She’s among an increasing number of older adults – many from Arizona – who have joined the Peace Corps.
“My whole life, all I’ve ever done is pay bills,” Powell said. “I’ve worked 45 years and raised two girls by myself. They’re happy. This is the perfect time for me to give back. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Two years ago the Peace Corps sought volunteers who could bring more skills and experience. Those recruiting efforts resulted in a 44 percent increase in applications from people older than 50.
The international program continues to attract older Americans. Although leaving behind their responsibilities at home for months of cultural isolation and stark accommodations abroad can prove difficult, the personal rewards and sense of accomplishment are profound.
“You feel like a pioneer,” said Rita Ruks, 69, who served in Kyrgyzstan from 2005 to 2007. “How many times in your life can you say, ‘I made a difference’?”
Peace Corps officials are happy to see the rise in interest from older adults.
“People over 50 tend to be much more qualified and better rounded because they bring more skills and experience, not only in the workplace but life experience as well,” said Kate Kuykendall, public-affairs specialist.
Applications also are on the rise in Arizona, with 32 older adults applying in 2008, compared with 20 each in 2007 and 2006.
Nationally, 1,197 over-50 adults applied in 2008, compared with 864 in 2007 and 932 in 2006. Still, older adult volunteers make up just 5 percent of the total, with the average age of volunteers at 27.
The Peace Corps was launched in 1961 and serves in 79 countries. Those who join get an orientation before being sent overseas to live with a host family. Then volunteers find their own housing for a two-year stint.
About a third of volunteers work in education, most of them teaching English – a particularly valued skill in areas where the dominant industry is tourism. Some volunteers work in health care.
Kuykendall said no one is exactly sure why there is a spike in older volunteers, except that there are more people in the over-50 age group now. She said the economy, with careers ending early, may be one reason, but that usually the decision is something a volunteer has considered over time.
Responsibilities accrued over decades can make the leap into Peace Corps difficult.
Phoenix native Kathryn Bethards had volunteered several times for Habitat for Humanity in Africa, as well as at a Romanian orphanage. Those had been enriching times.
Her dream was that upon retirement, she would serve in the Peace Corps. She mapped out what she would need financially to attain that dream.
Then the recession hit. She lost her job and lived off the savings that was supposed to enable her retirement.
Still, Bethards, 61, stuck to her plan, waiting out the monthslong application process and visiting doctors to complete the medical evaluation. She sold her California home and moved to her parents’ house in Sun City.
All the while she dreamed of returning to Africa and was happy upon discovering she’d been assigned to Ghana.
In the spring, her father died. Her decision to leave was made more difficult knowing she would have to leave her newly widowed mother alone.
“I talked to my mother about my being gone while she was adjusting to him being gone,” Bethards said. “And she was so supportive.”
Dealing with family can be difficult for older volunteers. Besides concerns for their parents, their own children may worry. Fears rise about the risks of working in poor villages.
Powell, the retired teacher from Scottsdale, had a hard time convincing her adult daughters that the Peace Corps was right for her.
“They were in shock for quite a few months,” she said. “They said, ‘Mom, all you’ve done is give.’ But once they understood the reasons, both my daughters and my friends have been supportive.”
Although older volunteers can often struggle with selling, storing or giving away the items they have gathered over decades, it provided a release for Powell.
“I feel like I’m going into the convent,” she said. “I’ve gotten rid of couches I’ve had for 30 years.”
Peace Corps volunteers undergo weeks of training in the U.S. before shipping out. The first three months are spent with a host family. But even with that introduction to a new village and culture, life can be isolating and harsh.
Ruks, 69, of Mesa, discovered just how tough it can be when she taught English in Kyrgyzstan, near China, from 2005 to 2007.
“There are some people who turn around and go home the first week,” she said. Of her group of 66 volunteers, only 29 finished the 27-month stint.
Kyrgyzstan is a former Soviet republic, so Ruks had to learn Russian and Kyrgyz.
Ruks found she was a valuable source of information, as well. The local people hungered for knowledge of the West, and they clamored for her to translate everything.
“Everyone has a cell phone and watches Western media and listens to Western music,” Ruks said. “They crave information about what’s available in the world. You can really see the effect you’re having.”
Ruks considered joining the Peace Corps after college, when the organization was new. But she was not sure she had enough to offer.
She later worked as a clinical chemist, then for NASA, helping astronauts from other countries. When she retired she knew she could help the Peace Corps as much as the Peace Corps could help her.
“When you go right after college, people want to make something of themselves,” she said. “When you’re older, you’d rather contribute to the world.”