Personal Finance > Money Dreams

Peace Corps at 51
Leslie Hawke thought it would be a stint -- three years later her work in Romania is a way of life.
May 1, 2003: 9:55 AM EDT
By Leslie Haggin Geary, CNN/Money staff writer

Leslie Hawke found a new life in Romania
Retired rich at 26
Painter at 63
College freshman at 75

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - At age 48, Leslie Hawke decided to take early retirement -- but it had nothing to do with pampered vacations, golf lessons or good bottles of wine.

Instead it meant leaving a position at a big New York City scientific publishing firm, her apartment on Central Park West, and her comfortable life, and heading to Romania as a Peace Corps volunteer.

"I had always felt conflicted about working for money versus working for love -- but the money was always more compelling, especially since I wanted to live in New York City and have an upper-middle class life," said Hawke. Finally, though, she had enough of going to a job that was financially, but not emotionally, fulfilling.

That's not to say Romania didn't have its challenges or minor hardships. Hawke spent her first winter boiling water in her apartment because she had no hot water. Nevertheless, she fell in love with the country.

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Hawke quickly discovered how she wanted to spend her life, thanks to an 8-year-old gypsy boy named Alex whom she first spotted while he was begging in the street outside her apartment. After three days of observing him collect hand-outs in the middle of a busy intersection, Hawke took him to a street children's shelter so he could get a free meal -- and a much-needed bath.

As it turned out, Alex wasn't a homeless orphan. Like many gypsy children in Romania, he begged to support his family, and when Alex's mother discovered what Hawke had done to help her son, she was infuriated.

As a result of this encounter, Hawke helped start a work program for mothers of children found begging in the streets. While the mothers are in training or at work, their children attend a school re-entry program that prepares them to enter Romania's regular school system.

Hawke, now 51, has since sold her New York apartment and has moved to Romania permanently. She is still a Peace Corps volunteer, but the education programs she started are supported from grants from U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She also raises money from private donors, who often "sponsor" students, equipping them with shoes, school supplies, food and tuition for just $300 annually.

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Hawke credits her success to her age. Three decades of working in the corporate world gave her the networking, sales and fundraising skills necessary to build, run and obtain financing for the school.

"I would have been useless in Romania at 25," she says. "But now I have a lot of skills and experience that is very welcome here."

Even so, she believes the Peace Corps must do a better job recruiting older volunteers. "Most people have the misconception that joining the Peace Corps is like taking a vow of poverty. It's not," she stresses. "If people knew how rewarding the work is, they'd be applying in droves."  Top of page

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