When President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, Harpreet Datt was 10 years old and not yet a U.S. citizen after emigrating from India.
Like thousands of other young people at the time, she was inspired by the call to work in another culture and help others. When the last of her four children left for college three years ago, Datt knew she had a rare window of opportunity to pursue her childhood dream of joining.
Datt, from Lake Forest, Ill., got in and was placed in Macedonia in September 2009.
Datt is now stationed in a village in central Macedonia working in local economic development and with a women's organization. She will live there for a total of 27 months, the term for every Peace Corps volunteer.
"I was faced with being an empty nester and wanted to take the leap to finally volunteer," said Datt. "And I'm so glad I did it," she said over the phone from Makedonski Brod, Macedonia.
The total percentage of total Peace Corps volunteers over 50 is 7 percent, or 576 of the total 8,655 volunteers. The Peace Corps announced last week that the total number of volunteers in its 77 host countries has reached a 40-year high. This year's number was an increase of 13 percent over last year when 7,671 served in 74 countries.
"It's something we're going to see even more as people reach this age," said Ken Budd, executive editor of "AARP The Magazine" of the growing numbers of older volunteers abroad. "They're thinking about the legacy they're leaving behind. What better way to go, with simultaneous benefits of helping others and knowing a culture in a way you hadn't otherwise. It's this idea of wanting to serve and wanting to see a place in a different way than you would if you were a tourist."
The decision by an older volunteer to join the Peace Corps can be complicated, especially if the volunteer is married like Datt. She said her four unmarried children, now between the ages of 20 and 27, were "very, very supportive," but her husband had more trouble digesting the idea.
"My husband had a very difficult time," said Datt. "We've known each other since college and have been married since 1977."
Datt said it was especially difficult to leave her husband alone while he ran his mid-size electric and solar contracting business. And it is expensive, she said, to pay the healthcare costs to hire another employee.
Volunteers receive complete medical and dental care plus the cost of transportation to and from their country. The Peace Corps also pays a living allowance comparable to the living expenses of the local communities in which volunteers live. In addition, volunteers are paid $7,425 (before taxes) to use at their discretion at the close of the 27 months of service.
But after her husband finally gave her support for her lifelong dream, he became ill with meningitis in February, only six months after she arrived in Macedonia. Datt returned to Illinois to be with her husband in the hospital and struggled with the decision to return to her assignment. "I would see myself as a failure if I didn't return," said Datt, who had three months of in-country language and cultural training had only been at her sight for two months. "I had not accomplished much by that time. It was an extremely difficult decision, but again, it was my children who rallied around me."
Her children took leave from school and work to care for their father. The family hired home health care to help. Once her husband recovered, Datt realized she made the right choice and is happy with her decision to be in Macedonia.
"He recovered, and we've reached a better footing in our lives," said Datt. "And our relationship is enriched because I did come back." Once she returned to Macedonia, Datt said she started to see breakthroughs at work.
"It's a great experience for an older person," she said. "When he does retire, health insurance will be a big problem," said Datt. She hopes to gain entry back into a public service career when she returns from Macedonia.
Karen McCarthy, a Peace Corps alum who spent 27 months in St. Lucia, said returning can be very difficult for older volunteers who have not planned their integration back to the U.S.
"My home was here when I returned because my kids were living in it," said McCarthy who returned in August. "I have two friends who volunteered. They sold their house, everything. So when they came back, they came back to nothing. They have to start completely over."
McCarthy, 61, said the timing was right for her to volunteer after she had retired five years prior and had been widowed for seven years after her husband was hit by a car.
Like the other volunteers, she said the economy didn't influence her decision to leave the country, but her personal financial situation helped her plan her return.
"I had always managed my own money. From the time I was 27 I knew I wanted to retire early," she said. "The $7,000 or so readjustment is not a lot of money. It may be fine for kids coming out of college. For older people, you have to do this for the right reasons."
Kip and Maureen Doran, health professionals from Colorado, have worked on HIV/AIDS prevention in Botswana since 2009. Kip, a graduate of Yale's medical school, said the most rewarding experience has been teaching psychology at the University of Botswana Medical School.
"When our colleagues heard what we were doing, they thought it was temporary insanity to stop our finances to work for nothing. The twist is that you don't have to be in your 60s and near retirement and have financial concerns to be a Peace Corps volunteer."
Both plan to return to their medical and teaching careers when they return to Colorado in 2011.
"I'm working as hard or harder than I was in my regular job," said Kip Doran of his work in Botswana. "I put in a lot of hours. That's my personality. I like being active. If anybody thought it was going to be a come over and sit on the beach, it's not anything like that. "