Diane Gallagher was in her early 50s and divorced when she faced a question common to many empty-nesters: What's next?
"My four children had graduated from college and had jobs and apartments," says Ms. Gallagher of Brookline, Mass. "It was time to give back the gifts I had received."
That desire to give back led to an adventurous choice: joining the Peace Corps at a stage when many people would consider such a step impossible. In 1990 she was assigned to the Republic of Cape Verde, 380 miles off the coast of Senegal in West Africa.
"I rented out the condo, sold the car, gave the cat to a cousin, said goodbye to my children, and got on the plane at Logan, not looking back," she says. "My son and daughter were watching me go through the gate. It was very hard, but I knew they would be OK, and I knew I would be OK. Sometimes you just have to trust."
Trust and open-mindedness are among the qualities the Peace Corps is seeking as it launches an initiative this month to attract more midlife and older volunteers like Gallagher. It is a timely push, as volunteering in America has reached an all-time high.
"It is a way to enhance and deepen and broaden what the Peace Corps is all about," says Ronald Tschetter, director. "Those who are 50-plus bring 30 to 35 years of expertise and knowledge to the opportunity to serve." He emphasizes that they are an adjunct to younger volunteers, not a replacement for them. People can go singly or as couples.
Those in this age group typically account for 5 percent of volunteers. Officials want to increase that to 10 percent in the coming year, then add another 5 percent the following year. A new website, www.peacecorps.gov/50plus, outlines the program.
Currently nearly 400 of the agency's 7,800 volunteers are 50 and over. The oldest is 81. Countries hosting the most older volunteers are Ukraine, South Africa, Armenia, Thailand, Romania, and the Eastern Caribbean islands. Typical assignments include education, youth outreach, community development, business development, agriculture, health, and technology.
Perhaps the most famous older volunteer was Lillian Carter, mother of President Jimmy Carter, who went to India in 1966 when she was 68.
Gallagher began giving back by helping Cape Verdean women form a sewing association and find grant money to buy fabric and thread. Old Singer sewing machines hummed as the women stitched maternity clothes. Word spread, and people from other islands came to buy.
So successful was the venture that when Gallagher returned for a visit two years later, the sewing association was still operating. "Three others had been started, along with one school," she says with obvious satisfaction.
Life was reduced to basics. She slept on a mattress made of cement bags and had no running water, no electricity, no TV. "But I had everything," she says. "I was humbled by the experience, and by the people I worked with and for, with their courage and their commitment."
Gallagher found advantages in being an older volunteer. "You get a lot more done because they respect age," she says. "They looked at my wrinkles and said, 'She's got to be very wise. She's got a lot of them.' "
Still, she does not minimize the challenges. "For an older volunteer, it's really a big commitment. You're giving up your way of life, but you're learning about another way of life."
Going through the medical exam process was "very hard," she says. She also calls the three months of in-country training "grueling," adding, "It's not a walk on the beach, it's not Club Med."
Mr. Tschetter acknowledges the challenges older applicants face in the medical clearing process. "It's very thorough," he says. "We can't compromise that."
Language presents a second challenge. Noting that the Peace Corps teaches 180 languages, he says, "We know older people can learn a language, but they learn it differently. We have to adjust our teaching style."
Then there is the complexity of older applicants' lives. "They own property, have grandchildren, and have investments and retirement portfolios," Tschetter says. "We have to give them a little more time to settle their affairs, and give them help."
For Jim Wilson, a retired Latin teacher in Barnet, Vt., the Peace Corps offered a welcome change. "My two kids had graduated and the university bills were paid," he says. "It was time for Dad to hit the road."
That road took him to a Peace Corps program in Namibia in southwest Africa, where he celebrated his 60th birthday. From 1998 to 2000, he taught English to children in elementary school and trained teachers. "I got so much respect as an older male," he says, noting that Africans called him "uncle."
Mr. Wilson describes his daughter and son as "very supportive" of his venture. His son even flew to Namibia for a visit. Calling the Peace Corps "a wonderful experience," he adds, "It broadened my world in the way I knew it would."
After the Peace Corps, Wilson, eager for another opportunity to help others, volunteered for AmeriCorps for two years. He drove a bookmobile in Vermont and read books to children.
Drawn by the allure of the Peace Corps once again, he signed up for a second stint in 2005 and in 2006. This time he taught English in Ukraine.
"The Peace Corps isn't for everyone, but if it's for you, it can't be beat," Wilson says. "It helps to be a low-maintenance person, open, welcoming, and with curiosity about other people. You've got to rough it a little bit. Being a hiker or a camper helps."
Other older volunteers are returning after serving decades ago when they – and the Peace Corps – were young. Now retired, they are eager for a new challenge.
Another midlife volunteer, Carrie Parsi, had been widowed for about 10 years when she joined the Peace Corps. "This is something I would have liked to do when I was younger," she says. "Now the time was right." She sold her house and car, put her furniture in storage, and turned her financial affairs over to her daughter. "It took me a full year to get all of that off the ground," she says.
In October 1999 Ms. Parsi traveled to Kiribati in the Gilbert Islands, part of Micronesia. Based on one of the outer islands, Abaiang, she lived in a native house she describes as "wonderful," made from the spine of branches of coconut trees. "It was wide open," Parsi says with a laugh. "Everything crawled in and out."
As a teacher of health education, she became acquainted with those in her village. "They adopted me," Parsi says. "When I left, somebody said, 'You've been a grandmother to the village.' They're wonderful, hardworking people."
Her rewards came with sacrifices. One of the biggest was the lack of communication with her family. Mail could take anywhere from five weeks to three months. There were no phones on the outer islands. Although the main island had telephone service that was "sort of up and running," she says, "you could call and call and not get through." E-mail was possible on the main island – if the electricity worked.
Parsi's first grandchild was born while she was away. "He was a year old before I got to meet him. That was very hard."
Even so, Parsi, now of Gloucester, Mass., calls the Peace Corps "a real blockbuster of an experience." She adds, "Had I done it when I was younger, I know I would have valued it. But doing it as an older person I truly treasured it. I felt very honored to be there in that setting and to be so accepted by the people."
Beyond the aid 50-plus volunteers give to people in their host country, they also offer a listening ear and helping hand to young volunteers. As Parsi recalls, "Many of the younger ones would come to us when times were tough."
Ask Tschetter who should not apply and he says, "A person who needs all the comforts and conveniences of a penthouse suite in the city. It's a mission. You have to have the desire to serve."
Gallagher lists other qualifications. "You have to have a sense of adventure, you have to be able to roll with the punches, and you have to be able to turn on a dime." A sense of humor is essential.
Two weeks ago Gallagher, now an archivist at Boston University's Gotlieb Archival Center, received a presidential volunteer service award, the highest award for volunteer service.
Summing up the advantages of reaching out to others, she says, "People over 50 years of age have so much to give, so much to teach."
Offering reassurance that the Peace Corps is inclusive, Tschetter says, "Older people say, 'I didn't know you wanted me.' We want you dearly."