THE BLOG
04/25/2013 06:15 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

Searching for Significance as an Empty Nester

Statistics say that the baby boomers make up about 76 million people in the U.S. These statistics also indicate that boomers are not satisfied with many aspects of what is happening in this country and I can agree with that. They worry about the GDP, Medicare, Social Security and individually having too much debt without a high enough quality of life. I can relate to that as well, but more pressing to me is the core issue of what to do with our lives after our children leave home and/or we retire.

Over the next few decades there will be a lot of people out there trying to find fulfillment and satisfaction in this phase of their lives and I will be one of them. I am in the middle of the boomers age range of 49 to 67 and I have contemplated these issues as I watch friends flounder with their extra time, lack of direction and need to feel useful. But I have found a solution that may inspire others and help this country as well, and I stumbled upon it through my alma mater.

I am not the kind of person to go to class reunions or even give a school my current address for fear that they will hound me for money, but after moving to a sleepy town in South Carolina from the vibrant city of Toronto, I was looking for some intellectual stimulation. So after 25 years of silence, I gave my email address to Yale, where I had done my Master's in Architecture, in order to see what alumni opportunities they offered, and it altered my life.

My first email from the AYA was an invitation to join the newly formed Yale Alumni Service Corps (YASC) for a program near the western border of the Dominican Republic to help build houses, teach children and set up a medical clinic for an impoverished village. The local people would be inviting us into their homes and they would work beside us to improve their community. This was exactly what I was looking for!

I had been organizing trips abroad since my divorce in order to alleviate the pain of missing my children when they visited their father for a week or two over holidays. At first it was exciting to go to Europe, Australia, Japan and Fiji, but as the years went by it started to feel superficial. I wanted a deeper cultural connection and more fulfillment out of these travels. Then my four children started leaving for college, another difficult transition, and without the focus of working at their schools, attending their sports events and tending to their everyday needs, I found that I had time to fill and I needed an outlet for my energy. So I signed up for the construction group of the YASC program then dusted off my hammer, screw driver and other tools to pack for the trip.

When we arrived in the village, it was an eye-opener to see people in tattered clothes living in dirt floor shacks built from wood planks and patched tin roofs, without running water or even an outhouse. The work to build the new houses was physically hard but the Dominicans were so welcoming, hard working and grateful. I taught both local and American women, who had never touched electric tools, to build kitchen cabinets and after that they wouldn't put the tools down. Local men were taught to do plumbing and electrical wiring which helped them get jobs after we left. Thinking that I might have helped just one person was enough to make me feel the entire trip was worthwhile and I was galvanized and inspired by it.

The most impressive people though, were the rest of the YASC group. They had such compassion, talents and global experience. I met friends for life just rotating bus seats on the drive to the site. I also became the head of the construction group when the intended leader couldn't make it due to a cancelled flight, forcing me into a leadership role that would continued for years and shape my future.

After this first trip I went on more -- leading construction in Mexico, building playgrounds and amphitheaters out of garbage dumps, working with gang members, and in China renovating a museum, library and teaching hundreds of children. We collaborated with local universities, high schools, ground partners and NGOs. The world opened up to me as I learned about all the incredible work these groups were doing. Then I volunteered to lead an entire group of 90 volunteers back to the DR and 74 to Nicaragua the next year. Eventually I was nominated onto the YASC Board then nudged into the Chairperson position and given an award for my volunteer service -- an honor I had never imagined.

The next step for YASC was to find a domestic project and we did this by partnering with College Summit, a group founded by Yale alumnus J.B. Schramm and dedicated to increasing college enrollment for underprivileged children. This June we will be going into a distressed area of West Virginia to coach teens in leadership and writing skills to apply for college. These children will have an amazing experience staying on the campuses of Marshall University and West Virginia Tech to receive personal counseling by YASC volunteers to help them take a step that no one else in their family may have thought possible.

There is not a perfect solution to aging, but I care less about material things and I have more meaning in my life through this service work. If I have extra time now, I know where to invest it -- with other like-minded people trying to make this country and world just a little bit better. We hope to change some lives this summer!