Most Americans think of a Peace Corps volunteer as a hippie straight out of college. While the average age of those serving is 28, seven percent of approximately eight thousand volunteers worldwide are over 50. Although retired volunteers may face slightly different challenges overseas than their younger counterparts, they also arrive in their host countries with experiences that benefit their service personally and professionally.
Peace Corps literature emphasizes the benefits of serving later in life: “50-plus volunteers are generally accorded respect for their age and wisdom, and often mentor younger volunteers.” Native Minnesotans Linda and David Hebenstreit, both in their 60s, were sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers in Krivoy Rog, Ukraine in December 2012. The Hebenstreits are both English language education volunteers, which allows Linda to draw upon her teaching experience from back in the States. This summer, they ran a large summer camp for Ukrainian students and teens that focused on creativity and leadership. It featured a video greeting personally recorded for the camp by the mayor of Duluth, Linda’s hometown.
While many older volunteers, including Linda and David, cite learning the local language as a challenge, this has not impeded their work. “One of the most important things we do here is English Club,” Linda said. “People are hungry for the opportunity to speak with Americans. Americans carry with them a shine here.” They also have helpful tools like Google translate and, of course, their Ukrainian neighbors. “People are very, very kind,” David said.
Any minute now, the Hebenstreits will become first-time grandparents. While volunteers in the Peace Corps’ early years may have depended on snail mail, many now rely on computers to communicate with faraway family members. “Of course, you can’t have this conversation without mentioning Skype,” David said. The Hebenstreits have used their vacation time to visit their daughter and son-in-law at their home in Belgium, and plan to meet the new baby soon. “We had said we’ll wait until Christmas to visit again,” Linda said. “But now I’m back-pedaling on that.”
The Hebenstreits have 18 months left in Krivoy Rog, and plan to settle somewhere on the sea after their service. They have no regrets about serving. “I think it’s worth letting people know that the Peace Corps really values older volunteers,” Linda said. “We’re very well taken care of. It’s something that we’ll have for the rest of our lives. I’m so glad we decided to do it.”