Jackie Granger: Relocating to the Global Village
Downsized, divorced and over 50, this Milwaukee accountant redefined profit and loss.
BY BETSY WIESENDANGER
In 1995, every piece of Jackie Granger's identity was crumbling. Her 28-year marriage had hit divorce court. The four-bedroom colonial home she'd shared with her husband and four children in Milwaukee was being sold. Her kids, aged 21 through 26, were taking care of themselves. And the bank where she'd worked as an accountant for five years began trimming ranks.
At 52, Granger was laid off from work and was out of a job at home. "Strange as it seems, it made me very calm," she says today. "I couldn't do anything about it, so I tried to focus only on the positive things."
Fast-forward three years. It's 7 a.m. Granger hops out of bed in her ramshackle $100-a-month, two-room apartment in Valmiera, Latvia, a country about the size of West Virginia that seized independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
Would you consider working abroad for a few years as a Peace Corps volunteer or for another similar group?
It is still summer, but she grabs wool clothes to ward off the damp and chill. After a 10-minute walk through crumbling, rainy streets, Granger arrives at her job as a Peace Corps volunteer at the local business center. For the next six hours, she advises business owners and creates manuals for local managers and accountants. Later, Granger teaches English to adult classes at the neighborhood library. After that, some days, Granger travels to nearby towns to counsel local officials about how to promote tourism.
Now at the midpoint of a two-year Corps hitch that began in June 1997, Granger is finally fulfilling a dream she's held for decades—ever since President Kennedy founded the program, she says. She admits to being lonely at times and is certainly weary of heating bath water on the stove and washing clothes in a tub. But, explains Granger, "the Peace Corps has been on my 'to do list' for 35 years. I was young when Kennedy was president and we all wanted to join back then. To me, the Peace Corps is the Cadillac of volunteering."
Making the Cut
Other boomers are heeding the same wakeup call. Currently, there are 6,500 Peace Corps volunteers working in 80 countries on a variety of projects, from teaching farming skills to setting up healthcare programs to mentoring local businesses. More than half of the volunteers are female (59%) and the number over the age of 50 has doubled in the last decade, to about one out every 14 volunteers.
Financing a stint in the Peace Corps, however, isn't easy, even assuming you're accepted. Some 10,000 people apply each year, yet only a third make the grade. To qualify, you must be completely debt free, with a zero balance on every credit card.
Most banks holding Stafford, Perkins or other government-sponsored student loans will grant deferrals to Peace Corps volunteers. But you'll likely need to pay off any outstanding personal loans before heading overseas. Own a home? You'll need to sublet or have enough cash on hand to cover mortgage payments. Moreover, you must demonstrate experience in a skill needed by a country the Peace Corps serves. The demand for volunteers in agriculture, education and skilled trades has been constant. Recently, there's been increasing call for specialists in environmental protection as well as in business and community development.
The Cost and the Rewards
"Nobody joins the Peace Corps to get rich," says Granger, wildly understating the case. Her monthly salary of $300 barely covers living expenses. Any sightseeing trips means taking cash advances on her credit card. Once her service ends in August 1999, she'll get a $5,200 check to cover "readjustment" costs. When she returns to the U.S., says Granger, she'll need a job—pronto.
For now, she's busy banking memories, like climbing a hill in Estonia last December to see the fleeting winter sun; or making friends with "introverted" Latvians, whom, she says "have been through so much in the last 60 years under the oppressive Soviet rule;" or knowing she's helping Latvia to become self-sufficient.
It's been quite a journey, says the pioneering volunteer: "I dreamed for years of being a traveler, an independent person. Now I am that person for real."