A foreign exchange program for adults was exactly what I needed

A staircase in Morocco.

I was an American in my 50s reaching the twilight of my professional career. Here’s how I made my time really count as an adult volunteering abroad at an orphanage in Morocco.

Written by Deb Purcell

Almost everyone finds themselves at a crossroads at certain points in their lives. Those are the times when you ask yourself questions like, “what is my purpose?” and, “how can I live a more meaningful existence?” After taking a buyout from my company after nearly 30 years, I was looking at a future without a script. Although it was a little scary, it was liberating, too. I had the time and freedom to pursue bucket-list adventures that energized me and opened my mind to previously unconsidered paths. For me, that meant wanting to travel, and I found the perfect combination of adventure and meaningful activity through AFSNext, which helps adults find meaningful ways to go abroad.

If you are close to my age, you may remember AFS (formerly the “American Field Service”) as the foreign exchange program from high school. I was fortunate to participate in the AFS program in Austria in my teens, which changed my life as a young person by building my confidence and international understanding, which ultimately led to educational and professional opportunities. I have been an active AFS Volunteer throughout my adult life, and my entire family has benefited from exposure to other cultures and enduring bonds of friendship that extend beyond national borders.

“I’ve occasionally said it would be cool if there were a foreign exchange program for grownups, where adults could also experience personal growth through cultural immersion.”

It seemed serendipitous when an email from AFS crossed my screen describing a new program that fit that bill right at the time that I was able to act upon it.

Making the leap from casual travel to something more meaningful

I have traveled quite a bit, mostly on vacation and a little for work. As recent empty-nesters, my husband and I had started taking trips that rekindled our bond and shared sense of adventure. AFSNext volunteer programs offered something a step further, a deeper immersion and that chance to change lives for the better.

I worked with a specialist to understand what type of volunteer work was offered in each location. After reviewing options and considering Laos (I fell in love with Laos unexpectedly after visiting in 2015), I ultimately decided on a two-week program in Morocco because I had never been there, and my specialist mentioned that two other 50-somethings had signed on for two weeks in January. My only regret is not choosing a longer stay.

I landed in Rabat on January 25and stayed through February 9. (As an aside, I then flew to Madrid to meet my husband for two weeks in Spain and Portugal.)

How I volunteered during my two weeks abroad in Morocco

As an AFSNext volunteer, I integrated into the local culture in a more adult way compared to my earlier exchange experience when I lived with a family as a typical teenager.  This time around, I lived with a group of equally adventurous and purpose-minded adults. Each morning we joined other local commuters on their way to work, but our jobs were to provide care and support at a local orphanage.

We showed up at the orphanage everyday shortly after 9 to help make breakfast and feed the residents, several of whom are bed-ridden. I developed a strong connection with a 14-year old girl and sought her out each day. I got into the habit of singing Disney songs while feeding her.

“Despite the fact that she was unable to speak and I knew very little Arabic, and we managed to use our eyes and smiles to communicate.”

After breakfast, we typically strolled the grounds, pushing the kids in wheelchairs, and helped with art projects. The facility was very clean and the staff’s care was genuine.

Bringing my experience back home with me

My sense of self-worth grew more in two weeks during my service to its disabled residents than I had experienced in the previous several years on the job. In addition to seeing immediate value and purpose in my actions, I also awakened sleepy parts of my brain as I learned Arabic, ate Moroccan Tagine, walked historical Roman and Muslim sites, and challenged my own cultural biases.  I even rode a camel into the Sahara Desert and slept in a tent under the stars.

I would absolutely consider another AFSNext experience because it uniquely offers a way to give back with the opportunity to see new parts of the world and experience local cultures in an intimate way.

Picture of a market in Morocco taken during a adult volunteering abroad program

Since returning from my AFSNext experience, I have been able to approach planning my twilight career with renewed energy and clarity. The program has also fueled, rather than pacified, my wanderlust. And of course, the smiling faces I remember from the orphanage brighten my mornings when I look at myself in the mirror and ask, “what did you do to make the world a better place?”


AFSNext provides programs for adults for teaching, studying, intern, or volunteering abroad and make the most out of their experiences. AFSNext is a service of AFS-USA, Inc., a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization whose mission is to create a more just and peaceful world by providing intercultural learning opportunities.

Deb Purcelli
Deb Purcell is an avid traveler and lifelong learner based in Ann Arbor Michigan. She and her husband Joe have raised two sons and positively impacted the lives of many foreign exchange students. After an extensive corporate strategic consulting career, she is embarking on a new path as a personal financial planner to help others achieve their goals and dreams.


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