Volunteer Abroad in the Peace Corps in Retirement

There is no age limit in some volunteer organizations, including the Peace Corps.

(Image credit: Picture Partners / Holland)

Looking for a way to give back and experience a life-changing adventure in your second act? Joining the Peace Corps may fit the bill. “Retired Americans can use the life skills and professional experience they gained during their careers to make a lasting impact in communities around the world,” says Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen.

About 6% of volunteers are age 50 or older. “There is no upper age limit to Peace Corps service,” says Olsen. The oldest volunteer is an 83-year-old woman who works at a health clinic in Malawi.

“Flexibility, an open mind and a willingness to learn are strong qualities that make successful volunteers,” says Olsen. Depending on the program, service can last from three months to two years.

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David and Champa Jarmul met 40 years ago, when he was a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Nepal at a school where she taught. The couple always wanted to serve in the Peace Corps together, but careers and children—then grandchildren—kept them busy.

“As we approached our sixties, we got serious about the idea and quietly planned our transition,” says David. After David retired, the couple moved to Moldova for a two-year Peace Corps stint when both were 63.

Moldova is a small former-Soviet country between Romania and Ukraine near the Black Sea. The Jarmuls, who just finished their stint, lived in the small city of Ialoveni on the second floor of their host family’s house. David worked in a local library, where he taught classes in computer coding, robotics and English conversation and helped create a children’s room for families. Champa taught English at a local school and also volunteered at a local center for kids with special needs. “My favorite thing was my students,” says Champa. “I love walking down the street and everyone says ‘Hello Miss Champa!’ ”

Moldova’s economy is based primarily on agriculture, and the country is famous for its wine. “However, it is the poorest country in Europe,” says David. “A lot of the kids we see in the library or at school are being raised by their grandparents while their parents work abroad to earn money.”

The Jarmuls became friends with other volunteers from the U.S. who come from a variety of backgrounds, including a real estate broker, a city administrator, a restaurant manager and a small-business owner. “All of us joined Peace Corps because we wanted to give back and serve others,” says David. “It’s also a great way to learn about new cultures, broaden your horizons and have an adventure.” David chronicles his experiences in a blog.

Preparing to Go Abroad

David and Champa prepared financially for a few years before they joined the Peace Corps. He stayed in his job long enough to qualify for the retirement health plan, which they’ll use now that they’ve returned, and they accelerated their monthly mortgage payments before they left so they could pay off their house, which they rented out while they were gone.

The Peace Corps provides volunteers with housing and a living stipend, as well as medical and dental care, so the couple barely had to touch their retirement savings for two years. “We had no medical premiums, no car insurance, no utility bills, nothing at all except for some travel and personal expenses. We were able to hold off starting Social Security, too,” says David.

The program’s application process can take several months. “They review your job experience, check references, do a background check and look into every detail of your medical history,” says David.

To get started, visit peacecorps.gov and speak with a recruiter or returned volunteers to find out more about the experience. Also, review the living conditions and medical considerations of a particular volunteer opportunity before applying.“Peace Corps is not for everyone,” says Champa. “You give up a lot of the luxuries we take for granted in America. But it’s also an experience that will open your eyes and change your life.”

Kimberly Lankford
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

As the "Ask Kim" columnist for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Lankford receives hundreds of personal finance questions from readers every month. She is the author of Rescue Your Financial Life (McGraw-Hill, 2003), The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need (Kaplan, 2006), Kiplinger's Ask Kim for Money Smart Solutions (Kaplan, 2007) and The Kiplinger/BBB Personal Finance Guide for Military Families. She is frequently featured as a financial expert on television and radio, including NBC's Today Show, CNN, CNBC and National Public Radio.