Making a difference while traveling the world

By Jessica Chang, for

Maria Lee knew she was destined for a life beyond her small Midwestern hometown.

In the third grade, destiny found her.

“It just hit me in the soul, in my heart,” she said. “And that’s what I wanted to do ever since I was 8.”

A Peace Corps volunteer came and spoke to Lee’s class about her job helping children in Africa. That experience planted a seed in Lee that day.

And now, Lee is becoming a Peace Corps volunteer herself – at the age of 54.

“As a 20-year-old, I would’ve gone, ‘Oh my gosh! Who would go as a grandmother?’ Because I’m a grandmother now,” said Lee. “But now that I’m in my 50s, I don’t feel much different than I did in my 30s, only I feel more grounded and more comfortable in my skin.”

While the average age of a Peace Corps volunteer is 28, 7% of them, like Lee, are over 50. The minimum age requirement is 18 years old, but there is no upper age limit. The oldest serving volunteer today is 84.

No matter the age, volunteers are currently spread throughout 75 countries and are required to serve for 27 months. President John F. Kennedy started the program in 1961 to promote peace and friendship through service in developing countries.

“As someone who works in recruitment, I can tell you that this one of our best demographics, because Peace Corps resonates very deeply with them,” said Peace Corps public affairs specialist Kate Kuykendall of volunteers who are 50 and older. “We often hear from our applicants that they had wanted to join when they were younger, but ‘life got in the way’ and so they are very energized about doing something that they’ve been wanting to do for as long as they can remember.”

The Peace Corps recently partnered with AARP to target that demographic with advertisements and outreach events. The two organizations also encourage veteran Peace Corps volunteers and AARP volunteers to serve their own communities. AARP’s Create the Good program is an online resource for volunteer opportunities.

“Peace Corps volunteers age 50 and above come with a wealth of life skills and professional experiences to make an instant impact in communities around the world,” said Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams. “Peace Corps is honored to work with AARP to increase public service opportunities for Americans age 50 and over.”

Maria Lee said she initially hadn’t planned on waiting till she was in her 50s.

She set her sights on going right out of high school. But her aunt, at the time a Peace Corps volunteer on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, advised against it.

“She said, ‘Don’t. Wait until you’re older.’ She had waited until her kids graduated from high school,” Lee recalled.

So Lee did the same. After five years in the United States Air Force, getting married, having two children and running a successful horseback riding business, Lee applied in 2007.

The Peace Corps accepted her and invited her to work in Africa.

“I shouted from the rooftop,” Lee reminisced with a grin.

Only a medical screening stood between Maria and her dream. And that led her on a journey she never expected.

“They found breast cancer,” she said. “So I didn’t go to Africa in 2007. I went through chemo and lost my hair and my breasts and turned 50 years old in that condition and just kept going.”

Lee continued to hike, work outdoors and eat healthy, as she always had, determined to beat the cancer.

She did. And after three years of being cancer-free, she reapplied and was again accepted into the Peace Corps. In March, she leaves her home in Loomis for Albania in southeastern Europe, where she’ll work as a community and economic development specialist.

Lee presumed it was for her entrepreneurial spirit.

Maria teaching a horseback riding lesson

“When I ran my own business, I started with nothing. Somebody gave me a horse one day and I started to give lessons on it and it worked into almost a million dollar a year business,” she said. “It was just amazing how well it turned out in the end.”

Whether she gives business advice as an entrepreneur, a warm hug as a mother or empathy as a cancer survivor, Lee knows Albania will also add to her 54 years of life experience.

“I think that will be bigger than what I give,” she said. “I think what I learn over there is going to be tremendous. And I’m at a point in my life where I’m open to just about anything.”

For two-time Peace Corps volunteer Richard Fuchs, that’s the right attitude.

“I’m a firm believer that you make your program what you want it to be,” he said.

Fuchs first served in the Peace Corps for a tuberculosis control program in Bolivia right after he finished college in the late 60s. Almost four decades later, he reapplied.

Richard and his Peace Corps buddies in Bolivia in the 1960s

“I always thought I would do it again,” Fuchs said. “I would have to wait till my child grew up and I retired or something and the opportunity presented itself in 2005, so I said now’s the time. Why not? I’m still healthy and I needed to get out of this country and show other people that America wasn’t exactly what our government was doing.”

The organization assigned Fuchs to teach English in Turkmenistan in Central Asia.

“I wanted to go to a Muslim country because I have no Muslim friends and I wanted to find out what their culture was,” said Fuchs, a Van Nuys resident. “I found out, at least as practiced in Turkmenistan, they were the nicest, kindest, most generous – and they didn’t have a lot. To anybody, they opened up their hearts.”

Every Turkmen he met would ask him the same questions to get to know him – where he’s from, whether he’s married and how old he is.

“Age is revered in the Turkmen society,” Fuchs said. “I would explain that in American society many people go out of their way to veil the aging process, especially here in California through gyms, health food, tanning parlors, plastic surgery, hairplugs, and that most Americans wouldn’t ask that question. Of course having attempted to explain that to my students their next question was always, ‘So how old are you?’”

Whether Bolivia or Turkmenistan, in his 20s or his 60s, Fuchs stresses that each Peace Corps experience is personal and “devoid of age effectiveness.”

But he does admit, in Turkmenistan, he was able to offer “a broader range of knowledge and experiences that can be added to the teacher’s repertoire of instructional tools,” having lived longer than most of the other volunteers there.

For Maria Lee, her range of knowledge and experiences have cultivated a level of patience and maturity she hopes make her more prepared than ever for her upcoming adventure.

“You know you’re going to save the world when you’re in your 20s,” she said. “When you’re in your 50s, you’re looking back going, well I might not save the world, but I can maybe help this little corner of it instead.”


Starting Over

I recently met a humble and inspiring woman, named Karin Carlson, who I was lucky enough to shadow for a new job I’ve just started. At 61-years-old, Karin’s found a new calling in life. She’s a much different person today than she was a few years ago when her world was turned upside-down.

She and her husband divorced after being married for 35 years. She found herself in her mid-50s lost and lonely. Her friend offered her an idea to help her out of her rut – go with her to Kaihura, Uganda to volunteer for Bringing Hope to the Family – an organization that runs an orphanage, a medical clinic, a vocational school, an elementary school, sustainable livelihood projects and a child welfare program. She agreed to it. When asked what skills she could offer, Karin said she had administrative experience from helping her ex-husband build his business. But when she got to Uganda – change of plans. The organizers asked her if she was afraid of blood. She decided to take the challenge and became a dental assistant, helping pull teeth and repair smiles.

Karin working at the HopeAgain dental clinic

That trip left an imprint on Karin’s heart.

“I had never seen anything like the poverty, and yet the people had joy. It showed me that you don’t need things to be happy. It also got me outside of my own head and my own problems as a result of my divorce, and made me feel like a worthwhile person again.”

Karin’s newfound passion for serving the poor in Uganda brought her to Bringing Hope to the Family a second time – this time, she worked with children in the orphanage and helped build a beauty salon with teenage girls who were learning how to do hair and massages to become self-sustaining.

She’s going back for the third time next summer. Karin considers this community in Uganda her second home…and strongly considers making it that permanently one day.

“I am 61-years-old and a grandmother of 3. It’s pretty interesting to ‘start over’ at this point in life, but I think it’s a great way to go.”

Karin and her friends at Bringing Hope to the Family

I just got back home after an extended Thanksgiving vacation in so-sunny, so-warm So-Cal where I finally got to deliver gifts from Thailand and Vietnam to my generous friends who helped support my trip there. While I stopped in the Coffee Bean in Del Mar to meet a friend, the girl who took my chai latte order commented on the shirt I was wearing with the Chang beer logo on it.

This logo is similar to the one on the shirt I was wearing

She loves elephants and, therefore, loved my shirt. I told her I had bought it in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I visited while I was volunteering in the country, and how she should go there to experience the Patara elephant farm where I took care of an elephant for a day. She was so excited, she told the next customer in line about my trip. That customer’s name is Pat Feldman and we were meant to meet. She told me about her son at the University of San Diego who would love the opportunity to teach English in Thailand. Not only that, she started her own website – – that shares stories of kindness and humanity in a time when despair, selfishness, violence and corruption seem so prevalent. On her website, Pat shares how she was one of 7 kids and grew up on welfare. But no matter how little they had, her mother taught her the gift of kindness through a life lesson she’ll never forget that involved a coveted toaster – I’ll let you read the complete story on her website.

Pat told me how she featured a story on her website about a group of people who gather in the parking lot outside the Dream Dinners in Poway to package food to ship to people in Tanzania. Ironically, the person who owns that Dream Dinners, runs those food packaging events and leads groups to volunteer in Tanzania is Phil Harris, the pastor and director of Friends and Family Community Connection who led multiple trips to Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina hit – including my first volunteer trip in September of 2006. Pat and I were both so blown away by this serendipitous meeting in a random Coffee Bean I’ve never been to in San Diego more than two years after I moved away. It’s a small world after all.

I’ve never been to Australia, but I thought this would be a cool way to see it. How would you like to travel down under, while helping conserve the country’s wildlife and beautiful landscapes by planting a new forest or creating wildlife habitats for an endangered species? From wombats to pygmy blue-tongue lizards and koalas; or restoring beaches, historic towns and outback areas, YOU CAN MAKE AN IMPACT through Work and Volunteer Abroad. After the droughts, then all the flooding they’ve faced the last few years, they need the help from volunteers! Just click on this link below to learn more about this volunteer opportunity!




Now that I’m home from my own volunteer trip, I thought I’d share other volunteer travel ideas with you from a great book I bought at one of those Borders Going-out-of-Business sales. It’s Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference. Here’s one that sounds so fun and inspirational…

So you’ve heard of the World Cup, but how about the Homeless World Cup? The Homeless World Cup is a soccer (or football if you’re not from the U.S.) tournament for homeless players from around the world to use the sport to empower themselves to make a positive change in their lives. The last one just happened in August in Paris and the one in 2012 is in Mexico City and YOU can volunteer there! Check out their website:

Homeless World Cup logo for the tournament in 2010. 2011 was in Paris and 2012 is in Mexico City.

I’ve been back in the states for two weeks now and it’s crazy to think how quickly I got sucked back into the go-go-go, status-conscious, check-your-smart-phone-every-10-seconds way of life again! Sadly, I feel the memories of Southeast Asia fading a little day by day. At least posting my photos on Facebook little by little helps fill in those gaps.

Living in San Francisco helps me relive those experiences, too. A whiff of the sewer or a sign written in Vietnamese helps transport me back to Ho Chi Minh City. Or the symphony of horns that rises out of the snarled traffic in downtown during rush hour takes me back to the insane streets of Bangkok (their traffic is so much worse!). Whether it’s something I see, smell or feel – just for a split second – it’s a link that keeps me latched to those three amazing months.

Here’s what I miss most:
The children’s smiles and laughs

Nghiem laughing







My homestay mom in Thailand, Pi Su

Pi Su and me on my last day at school









The other volunteers from around the world I worked with in Vietnam

Volunteers for Peace Vietnam, July 2011







Buying a good bowl of pho or a plate of pad thai off the street for $1

Pad thai from a street vendor








I loooove those mangosteens!







Massages for $6
2-hour siestas in the middle of every day in Vietnam
New adventures and places to explore every week

Being an elephant owner for the day in Chiang Mai, Thailand












Don’t get me wrong…I am glad to be home and here’s why:

Being with my family and giving my parents peace of mind that I’m safe at home
Being with Trevor
Catching up with friends
People who understand personal space
People who say “excuse me”, “please” and “thank you”
Seeing and interacting with people of all different ethnic backgrounds
Clean feet
Toilet paper in public restrooms
Not fearing for my life when I cross the street

Streets of Ho Chi Minh City...cross at your own risk







Softer mattresses
Finally getting to see the last Harry Potter movie (it was banned in Vietnam)

The important thing is not to lose sight of what I discovered about myself. I’ve learned I’m somewhat of a control freak and need to let go of what’s out of my hands. I’ve learned how to be comfortable – and confident – by myself. I’ve learned to become even more compassionate towards children, especially the ones who are so helpless.

Nghia and me

I need to use the momentum I’ve gained from my trip to keep driving me towards the bigger picture – my ultimate goal – of providing encouragement and resources for people seeking a volunteer venture of their own. Please let me know if you know of a web designer who’d be willing to contribute to a project like this and anyone else who might want to help. Stay tuned…I may be home now, but it doesn’t end here!

It takes a chance…

Every day, 4-year-old Tam wakes up surrounded by 31 other kids – his roommates and siblings, in a way. He’s brimming with energy and ready to jump out of bed and off the walls, like Spiderman – his favorite superhero. But he doesn’t get to play or run around with the other children. That’s because most of the others are confined to their beds – unable to walk or even speak, like he can.

The beds within the orphanage

Tam eating his dinner







Tam is one of the lucky ones. At the orphanage for disabled children where he lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, his disability is one of the least severe – being blind in his right eye. He can speak Vietnamese – and even a little English and French he learned from the volunteers who’ve worked at the orphanage.

Tam ended up at the orphanage after his parents abandoned him when he was about a year old – an all too familiar story amongst his “roommates”. But now, he’s getting a second chance. He’s able to use his abilities to build a future for himself – full of hope and potential. Tam just started going to school – outside the orphanage walls, with other children who can run, jump and talk with him – like him.

Tam at the school playground

Seeing him at school running around the playground, up the stairs to the slide, zooming down, then doing it all over again and again; hearing him laugh, scream and talk to the other children gave me a glimpse of who Tam could become if he continues going to school and growing in an environment where he’s challenged to be more than the kid who’s the “least severely disabled”. And thanks to the donations of Lorraine Burke, one of my fellow volunteers from Ireland, Tam’s future is more secure.

“If he gets a good education, he has a chance of maybe going out on his own when he’s older,” Lorraine says. “When he’s over 18, he’ll be able to get a better job, so it’s just great to see him and great for him to go out of the orphanage instead of being there every day.”

Since my one-month volunteer placement at the orphanage ended a couple of weeks ago, I’ve thought a lot about how I can continue to help the orphans I’ve grown to love like my own family. Maybe we can install an elevator or a build a ramp at the orphanage, so the kids have better access between the two floors. Maybe I can raise money to help pay for an operation to help Tam see again. When I fly back home to the U.S. tomorrow and return to my “real life,” those ideas and thought will continue churning through my head.

As I’ve traveled through Vietnam and Cambodia these last couple of weeks, I’ve stumbled upon so many opportunities to give in other ways – simple things we all can do when we travel. In Siem Reap, Cambodia, you can support the Angkor Hospital for Children by simply shopping at their store/photo gallery,

Friends Restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

donating blood or volunteering at the hospital. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, you can help give street children the self esteem and skills to become independent and productive members of their community by eating at an excellent restaurant, called Friends, that trains them to work in different industries, like the restaurant business.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I heard about an organization, called Maison Chance, through a volunteer I worked with at the orphanage. It’s an amazing place where disabled adults and orphans can get housing, health care, education and vocational training in a family setting. I got to visit all three of their centers – the most impressive to me was their

Maison Chance artist and his painting

Take Wing Center, where disabled adults learn how to paint, sew, make woodcrafts and work with computers. Here, they’re enabled and encouraged to build futures and careers for themselves even though they’ve been told so often their disabilities will hold them back. When I walked in, I felt as if I were entering an art gallery lined with expensive paintings of renowned artists. But these paintings were done by amateurs who’ve just learned the craft! I was drawn to this painting on the left of Vietnamese women dressed in traditional ao dais, in particular. So much in fact, I had to buy it. That money goes straight to the artist.

Seeing the talent and nurturing environment at Maison Chance gave me some hope for the orphans I helped take care of. With the right environment and people around them, maybe some of them can beat the odds, break through those metal bars that confine them to their beds and surpass people’s expectations of them as “disabled kids.” All it takes is a chance, just like the one Tam is getting.