Three years ago, an unexpected postcard arrived in the Denver mailbox of Christopher (Kip) Doran, M.D. ’73, and Maureen O’Keefe Doran, M.S.N. ’71. It was an invitation to a reception for potential Peace Corps volunteers over the age of 50. Intrigued, they went. As they walked out Kip recalled, “We looked at each other and said, ‘;We could do that.’ ”
The Dorans had spent 30 years in Denver, where they lived, worked, and raised two daughters. Both taught at the University of Colorado, both were heavily involved in community organizations, and both had private practices—Kip in psychiatry and Maureen as a mental health nurse practitioner. It wasn’t easy to disengage, and yet the prospect of such an adventure felt like “a second breath of life.”
So they signed up and as they wound down their practices, they learned they would be sent to Botswana. They flew to Africa, where a three-month home stay with a Botswana family immersed the Dorans in language, culture, and HIV issues (a quarter of young adults in Botswana are HIV-positive). They settled into Ramotswa, a town of 28,000 about 45 minutes from the capital. There they served from April 2009 to June 2011 as teachers and mentors. Though neither Doran was permitted to work clinically with patients, they used their teaching skills in medicine. Kip planned and implemented educational activities at the district AIDS coordinator’s office while Maureen taught high school guidance classes, helping students build self-esteem and leadership skills with an eye to HIV prevention. They wrote a textbook teaching parents how to talk to children about sex, sexuality, and HIV. And they taught a mental health course at the newly opened national medical school, encouraging students to study medicine in “the American way” of learning, group discussion, role-playing, and interview practice. It went over well with the students, who gave the class top satisfaction ratings. All in all, said Maureen, Botswana “was a wonderful match for us.”
Far from being a hindrance, the Dorans’ age worked in their favor. “Age is respected in Botswana culture,” said Kip—he was 63 and his wife 62 when they began their service. “I was male, I was older, and I was a physician. When I talked, people listened.” Maureen agreed, recalling that when villagers greeted them in Setswana with “Dumela mogolo” (Hello, old people!), it was “the highest compliment you could get.”
Maureen noted that being older allows Peace Corps volunteers to stay focused and keep the long view during difficult moments. Taking time off to work abroad may also be easier for older people than for those in midlife who are still establishing careers. Since the early 2000s, the Peace Corps has actively recruited older volunteers, in part by reaching out to AARP members. By 2005, 6 percent of Peace Corps volunteers were older than 50, up from 1 percent in previous decades.
Regardless of volunteers’ ages, though, the Peace Corps is no vacation. The Dorans commuted on foot and brought groceries home in backpacks; their house was unheated, and they were often cold. There were disturbing incidents, like a student death from HIV-related meningitis. Hardest was refraining from meeting problems with culturally unworkable solutions. When faced with a problem, said Maureen, “You have to be able to be quiet with yourself, to look and see how the locals are doing it. ... Things get done, but not with the speed or efficiency we would sometimes have wished for.”
“One of the things that impressed me is [that] it’s hard to help,” said Kip. Even with funding from large organizations like the Gates Foundation or PEPFAR, he said, “It’s hard to use that money wisely and intelligently.”
The Dorans’ Peace Corps service continues in a new way. One of the organization’s goals is promoting Americans’ understanding of other cultures; Kip and Maureen have taken that to heart, giving frequent presentations about their two years in Botswana. They’ve come a long way from their first uncertain days as foreign volunteers. “I kept saying to Kip, ‘;I don’t like change! Why am I doing this? I like stability!’ ” Maureen recalled. “But I’m very, very glad that we did.
“It’s something to do for America,” she added, “for your country. I don’t think it’s ever too late to consider doing that.”