by Sallie Grayson
Why? – Why spend your hard-earned cash and precious time to travel thousands of miles to work? You’ve already worked hard for decades and surely you deserve a well-deserved rest?
Volunteering in another culture is a lot more than work – it’s a real people to people experience, allowing us to get up close and personal, to immerse ourselves in local life and directly contribute to the lives of our hosts.
“Volunteers come away with an understanding of how life works for others" says Kate Stefanko, placement director for People & Places. "They find the experience truly meaningful – sharing and learning about each other’s lives, and often learning a lot about themselves too – no matter what age they are.”
Well-run volunteering can develop a profound level of social understanding. It can result in the humanising of poverty, and give a human face to vulnerability. It is often a life-changing experience, shifting consciousness towards an understanding of our shared humanity. It can and does lead to a mutual appreciation of our interconnectedness as people.
Volunteers who are well prepared and matched, from all walks of life, can share their skills and provide support to local people – enabling them to build better futures for themselves.
Nigel, a volunteer, would certainly recommend it: “The rewards are immense. I feel empowered to do much more voluntary work. I have a belief in myself and what I can achieve. I have learnt a lot about the culture and customs of South Africans and have been amazed by their resilience and resourcefulness in the face of adversity.”
Sounds good so far – what now? If you are contemplating volunteer travel be honest with yourself – not just about why you want to volunteer and what you hope to give and to gain, but also in practical matters: are you prepared to “rough it” or do you want a private bathroom? do you want to enjoy a cool glass of beer at the end of your day's work? do you have physical limitations? None of this means you can’t volunteer, but being less than entirely honest with yourself may result in disappointment.
And when you’ve asked questions of yourself, start to ask questions of any volunteering organisation you may be thinking of travelling with.
So you’ve done your research and made your decision – you’re off! What should you beware of?
Trying to do too much! Take time to watch and listen – be gentle with yourself. Keep your plans realistic – your reality isn’t necessarily the reality of the people you will be working with.
Try to be tolerant and non-judgmental, approachable and adaptable, respect local people as you would like to be respected – embrace and enjoy the cultural differences you experience!
Volunteering abroad may not be for everyone over 50, but a well-organized and well-managed programme can offer huge rewards.
“It was wonderfully refreshing to feel valued and respected FOR my age and experience.” Gill, volunteer.
Take a look at http://travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk/About.aspx?category=20 for some important questions – and you’re entitled to answers. After all, it’s your money you’re spending!