Aging Well: Retirees experience new lives abroad as volunteers

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For more information on volunteering abroad, visit www.volunteerinte... or www.goabroad.com....

— Editor's Note: This column originally ran Sept. 3, 2007.

As an elementary school teacher, Joni Moss, of Clark, never imagined that in retirement, she still would be helping children - but in a much different way.

Since retiring about seven years ago, Moss, 65, has taken part in six medical missions to Vietnam to help set up clinics to care for sick and orphaned children. Moss also recruits teams of nurses, doctors, dentists and other volunteers for the missions organized through Children of Peace International.

Moss, who lives part-time in Loveland, learned about the nonprofit organization after meeting its founder, Binh (pronounced "bing") Rybacki at her Front Range church. When Moss retired, she finally saw for herself the heartbreaking circumstances Rybacki described: Families selling children to pimps, babies abandoned at orphanage gates, and handicapped children turned to the streets by government-run orphanages.

With COPI, Moss has helped set up clinics in leper colonies and remote areas rarely visited by Westerners. She also has visited a COPI hospital for children with AIDS and COPI-run orphanages that have become havens for disabled children and former child prostitutes.

"It's just so easy to become an advocate for something like this," Moss said.

Retirees make the leap

Moss is among many retirees who are pursuing dreams of travel while putting their skills and passions to use in helping others.

For Ben and Millie Beall, of Steamboat Springs, joining the Peace Corps was a natural step after engaging in careers largely dedicated to public service and volunteer work.

Ben, 63, and Millie, 67, began the application process to the Peace Corps two years before retirement, with their eye on Latin America. They had traveled there often and wanted to immerse themselves even more in the language and culture they loved.

"The timing was right," Millie said recently before leaving for Peace Corps training in Bolivia. "The kids were out of college, and it was time for us to kick out again. : Joining the Peace Corps meant we could head south again and be productive."

After three months of training, the Bealls will spend two years in a small, remote Bolivian town, where they will help locals make a better living from agriculture with marketing and other techniques.

After working 30 years as a ski patrolman and adjusting to Steamboat's many changes, Ralph Whittum knew he was ready to start a new chapter in his life.

Next week, Whittum, 63, will realize his lifelong goal of joining the Peace Corps as he leaves for training in Cameroon.

"I'm ready to speak another language, see another culture and see if I can be of any use," he said.

Whittum's first-aid experience and fluency in French likely encouraged his placement in the public health program in Cameroon, though he's not yet sure what he will be doing.

"I'm mostly excited. : However, now and then a genuinely cold and sober moment comes over me, and I think, 'What are you doing, Ralph?'" he said.

The Peace Corps may be just the beginning of Whittum's new life abroad. He already is researching international opportunities after the Peace Corps.

"If I do come back, it will be because of sickness, not because of homesickness," he said.

Different opportunities

Not all volunteer experiences involve long periods of commitment. Many different types of opportunities are available to fit almost anybody's situation.

In addition to government and nonprofit organizations, many churches and clubs offer ways to help overseas.

Nancy and Bill Muldoon, of Craig, for example, are using their Rotary Club connections to travel while supporting efforts to help poverty-stricken people sustain themselves.

The Muldoons learn about humanitarian projects facilitated by Rotary Clubs throughout the world, then they visit programs to see firsthand what is being accomplished and to help by giving money, buying equipment or purchasing items made by the locals.

In Nicaragua, for example, the couple learned about a town that had been inundated with silt from a nearby caldera, forcing the people to live and forage in a toxin-filled dump.

The Muldoons visited a project called Children of the Dump, which teaches children weaving and other trades so they can move to a plot of land, raise produce and eventually buy the land.

"I respect these people who are trying to solve their own problems," Nancy said. "I'm truly humbled with how much we have and how little they have. : When you see people living that way, it touches the heart and soul."

Individuals who want to volunteer abroad may feel overwhelmed by the many possibilities.

Before beginning research, they should reflect on why they want to volunteer, what they want to get out of the experience and what they hope to contribute. Potential volunteers also should consider how long they want to be abroad.

With the exception of the Peace Corps and a few others, most programs charge volunteers fees to cover operating and travel expenses, materials or other needs. Fees vary widely, and some programs may offer fundraising or scholarship opportunities.

Would-be volunteers should ask representatives how fees are allocated: Does any money go directly to the project or community served, and are any other benefits included, such as insurance, language training, stipends, etc.?

Programs are available for volunteers hoping to apply specific language or professional skills, as well as for those armed simply with a desire to help and learn. Some also can accommodate people with disabilities or health concerns.

Although most programs are reputable, some may not be what they portray. Contacting past volunteers is the best way to get a genuine feel for the program and experience.

Fulfillment

Regardless of whether one is spending months restoring sea turtle habitats or building a clinic for a few weeks, volunteering abroad can offer a deep sense of fulfillment and add a new level of excitement to one's life in retirement.

Joni Moss's elaborate scrapbooks, filled with photos of rosy-cheeked Vietnamese orphans, are a testament to the pride and joy she has reaped from her volunteer experience.

And whether she is recalling smiles on the faces of leprosy patients or a healthy, blossoming child rescued from prostitution, Moss always is aware of her new perspective on life back home.

"They are happy with so little : and here we are - we come home to our lavish lifestyles, blessed with money and freedom," she said.

- The International Volunteer Programs Association contributed to this article

- Tamera Manzanares can be reached at tammarie74@yahoo.com.

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