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."