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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Is there life after retirement? Add to ...

John and Shelley Eby weren't interested in a conventional retirement of golf, cruises and condos in Florida. Instead, they started a little NGO in Guatemala and built a high school.

"We wanted something challenging," says Shelley. "With this, you see the difference, and the impact of it."

The high school, in the remote, impoverished agricultural community of Primavera, opened earlier this month. It has 26 students, with many more to come. Before now, kids who wanted to go to high school had to go to the city. Hardly anyone could afford it, and university was utterly beyond reach. The Ebys have also launched a scholarship fund so promising students can afford to stay in school and go as far as their abilities will take them.

This is not the picture of boomers in retirement that we have been led to imagine. Boomers, we are warned, will soon be a huge drain on society. As they age into senility, their pension entitlements and medical demands will suck the system dry. They will consume far more than they produce. Unless the system is radically reformed, future generations of workers will be paying through the nose so self-absorbed geezers can enjoy 30 years of idleness to perfect their golf scores.

In fact, most of the "retirees" I know don't fit this picture at all. They are as engaged as they were at work. They want challenge. They are searching for ways to enrich their lives by giving back, and by forging deep and meaningful ties with their communities.

My friend Martha worked furiously to build a successful business, then cashed out. Now in her late 50s, she's working furiously with a group of talented South Africans to build a microcredit operation in Soweto. My friends Rowlie and Kate, in their 70s, are silent partners in a charming small-town bookstore, along with several other enterprises that probably wouldn't exist without them. A retired businessman I know started a program to reforest unused rural land with maple trees, and uses his own money to subsidize it. One friend (who died too soon after she retired) persuaded some of Toronto's major cultural institutions to give free one-year memberships to new Canadian citizens. Another founded an arts program for inner-city students that has grown to reach 8,000 kids a year.

"You just get a feeling you should be giving something back," John Eby says. "It's pretty arrogant to divorce yourself from what's going on around you."

John was 55 when he retired from a senior banking job at Scotia Capital. That was more than three years ago. Shelley had worked in second-language programs at the Toronto school board. They had lived and travelled overseas, spoke some Spanish, and were affluent enough to be able to spend the winter months anywhere they wanted. In search of some place that was culturally interesting, they discovered the Guatemalan city of Antigua, an old colonial town with an ideal climate and a growing number of expats. On an impulse, they bought a house.

Guatemalans are grindingly poor, and intensely proud. Gradually, in small ways, the Ebys got involved. They donated a bit of money to replace the wobbly benches in a local school. They visited a typing class where kids were practising on battered old machines with no ribbons. (To enter Grade 10, students have to pass a typing test.) They bought some ribbons. "People would ask for a little help with this or that," says Shelley. "And our money went so far."

One thing led to another, and they decided to put their skills to work by founding Developing Scholars, a tiny non-profit agency that would focus on education in rural areas where the need is greatest. These areas have a high population of indigenous Mayans, who have been badly neglected by the government. Just 30 per cent of rural students in Guatemala complete Grade 3.

Why education? Because that's the way for a small amount of money to make the greatest difference. Take Wanda Duarte, one of their stars. As the daughter of a struggling single mother, she never could have gone to high school without help. A high-school education will give her and her family - she has two older sisters - a different future.

"Here's a girl who's bright as hell," says John. "Her whole family is working to support her. Wanda is their great hope. Her scholarship is around $500 a year, and that's enough to make a difference."

The scholarship program operates on the merit principle. Students are held accountable for maintaining good attendance and good marks. In just a couple of years, Shelley and John have seen children transformed before their eyes. When they launched a debating club, they saw inarticulate, culturally shy students become confident people who could express themselves. One boy now wants to study in the United States. "These kids are going to be future leaders," says John.

It's been an education for the Ebys, too. Helping people - especially in another country - is not for the naive. Development work is difficult, frustrating and complex, and it's easy to waste money. The most important lesson they've learned is that the community must be committed. Unless local people have a sense of ownership, it will never work.

There are plenty of aid organizations operating in Guatemala, including ones from Canada. So why start another one?

"We know where the money's going," says John. With a budget of $10,000 last year and $18,000 this year, they are determined to go slow. Their aim is to raise $100,000 from family, friends and supporters, and to commit $30,000 themselves. (And, yes, they've read Three Cups of Tea.)

At the grand opening of the new school in Primavera, it was easy to spot John. He's about a foot and a half taller than everyone else. Not all of the new students are teenagers - they include two mothers in their 30s who are breastfeeding. "I never had the opportunity to go to high school," said one. "I want to better my life."

For Primavera, this simple little school is transformational. It's also giving meaning to the lives of two accomplished people with time, talent and the determination to make one small corner of the world a better place. I'm betting that there are lots of people like the Ebys out there, and that there will be more and more as the boomers gradually age out of their careers.

"I think you can get awfully self-indulgent if you don't have an external focus for your energy," says John. "It can be pretty depressing if you only focus on yourself." Not that there's anything wrong with cruises, cocktail parties and golf. But they have work to do.

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