Have a less ordinary retirement: Volunteer overseas

15 February 2018

If you’re fit and healthy, why not use your skills to help others? We talk to retirees who love a challenge.

No longer bound by nine to five working hours or limited two-week breaks, many retired people are using their new-found freedom by offering their services as volunteers abroad.

The options are far and wide – as are the exotic destinations. You can join a conservation project, teach underprivileged children or work with animals in far-flung destinations such as Cambodia, South America, Thailand and Uganda.

We speak to four people about their experiences of volunteering in retirement.

“I made a life-changing trip to Peru”

The opportunity to help others is extremely rewarding, as Sheena Kelly, 57, who lives in Leeds, found out when she decided to take a lifechanging trip to Peru via company Projects Abroad.

Sheena, who worked as a nurse for 35 years, specialising in learning disabilities, opted for a trip where she helped children with special needs.

“I retired two years ago and, given my career background, I thought I could be of use in a small community where children needed help.”

Sheena worked at a local school and playschools in the city of Cusco. “I taught at the school, played nursery rhymes on my ukulele and did some tie-dyeing and pottery with the children,” she says. “One day, I had to build a pile of fl atpacked furniture for the play areas.”

While volunteering, Sheena stayed with a family in Cusco. This is common when volunteering so that volunteers can immerse themselves in the community.

“It was a great element of the trip as I got to see how families really live. I don’t speak much Spanish, but we got by. The whole trip was an extremely rewarding experience,” she says.

“I went to India to teach English”

Hilary Edmonson Hull also opted to help teach children on her fi rst volunteering trip last year. “Having retired just months before, I was determined to do something out of the ordinary,” says Hilary, 63. “I went to India for a month where I taught in schools in Jaipur and Goa. I had done a Tefl (Teaching English in a Foreign Language) course in preparation – but when I arrived they asked me to paint the classrooms. So I grabbed a roller and a pot of paint and got on with it. I still got to take a few lessons at my request, which I really enjoyed.

“The second week was spent at a school with young children, where I helped with educational games.”

Hilary, who worked as a pharmacist before retiring, travelled with a group of eight people, which included her friend, Val, organised through STA Travel. She says: “We were with people of all ages and we all got on very well, which was a stroke of luck.”

Hilary had time off for sightseeing. “We went to Delhi, Jaipur and Goa, which was great. It would have been a shame to go all that way and not see more of the country,” she says.

She says you need to be prepared for whatever you’re asked to do. “The last thing I expected to be doing was painting and decorating,” she says.

“But the point is you need to be willing to get stuck into whatever the local community needs you to do. Be ready for anything!”

“I like to volunteer for longer periods”

Roslyn King, 59, a retired NHS physiotherapist from Essex, now travels extensively all over the world on volunteer trips. She says that going for longer periods means better value for money.

Her very first volunteering trip was a six-month educational programme in Fiji with volunteer specialist GVI.

“The children are taught in English – and their exams are in English – but it’s not their fi rst language. So, I went over to help them learn better English.

“I spent three months learning about the teaching programme and then the following three months living with a family and teaching at the school. I really felt like I had done something worthwhile, which spurred me on to do more trips.”

Roslyn has recently returned from a two-week trip to Thailand with a company called Traveleyes, which pairs up blind travellers with sighted travellers who act as their guide on excursions. As a sighted traveller, you get up to a 50% discount on the holiday. “Being able to help people is such a privilege and seeing the world at the same time is wonderful.”

Roslyn has booked to go to Cape Verdi this summer to work on turtle conservation for four months – at a cost of £1,200. “I thought I would try something different again this time, and working with animals really appeals to me. There are so many exciting trips out there and I want to do as many as I can.”

“I have been on eight trips”

Jill Streeten (centre), loved her first trip so much she is now a regular volunteer. Jill, 70, has been on eight trips at the last count and has three more in the pipeline.

“It’s such a great way to spend your time. Each country was chosen with a specific interest at that time. During winter, I went to a warm country, previously not visited. In some cases, I used skills from my background as a journalist, counsellor and photographer.”

Jill, who is a semi-retired mother of four and grandmother of eight, has been all over the world. One of her most rewarding trips was in 2015 when she went to Fiji to work on a project on nutrition.

“Fiji has one of the worst obesity problems in the world. Life expectancy there is little more than 55,” she says. “I was able to use my counselling skills and experience in this field. My professional work had been among young people, focusing on the problems of weight, diet and eating habits.”

Last year, Jill went to the Philippines to work in an orphanage. “This was the first place where I found half of the volunteers were mature, retired people, many of whom had been before. I am toying with the idea of returning in January next year.”

Having got a taste for working with children, Jill, who splits her time between London and France, went to Goa earlier this year where she taught at kindergarten in the mornings and taught kids in slums in the afternoons.

“Here, I had the oldest group as this was the most important group as they were about to have exams and I was the only English volunteer,” she says. “During my last week, I swapped to work in the Animal Rescue Centre which I loved, and I plan to return there next year.”

Jill is also planning a trip to Cambodia later this year.

Jill’s top tip for anyone thinking about a volunteer trip is this: “If you think you are going volunteering as a holiday, forget it. You’re there to work. Take simple clothes, the minimum amount of luggage and leave your jewellery behind.”

Choosing a trip

Volunteering trips tend to be in far-flung areas of the world and some might feel wary about venturing so far from home, alone. Sheena, who travelled without her partner, says:

“My other half, Milan, is yet to retire and had no interest in visiting that part of the world anyway. So I decided to take the plunge and go it alone. It was a pretty daunting prospect as I had never done that kind of independent travelling. I had to catch three different flights to get there.

“But it was well worth it. I had the most incredible experience. I also had great support from the company I used, which was comforting.”

Part of the trip included a weekend excursion to Machu Picchu. “It was very spiritual,” Sheena says.

What you’ll pay

Volunteer trips differ in price enormously. They start at around £900 and can go up to £3,000 or more, with projects typically lasting from two to 12 weeks.

As well as the fee for the trip, which might include accommodation and excursions, you are expected to pay for flights and food. Plus, there is spending money to consider while you’re away.

Some of the money charged for volunteer trips also goes towards the cause you’re going to help.

Sheena says: “I paid about £3,000 for my three weeks. It was worth every penny as without the fee there would be no project. It was great being able to see where my money was going first hand. I took about £250 spending money with me and came back with most of it. You don’t need much.”

The low-down

There is typically no screening or interviewing for such trips. But most ask that participants have a good level of fitness to complete the activities on each of the projects.

Connor Whelan at The Great Projects, which offers animal conservation programmes, says: “Older volunteers bring with them a set of skills that are crucial to help the projects develop. They have had the chance to gain life experience and with this comes the desire to implement change towards the conservation issues they have seen occurring over their lifetime.

“We have volunteers of all ages travel with us, but the positive attitude, strong leadership skills and general experience of our older volunteers often makes them stand out from the crowd. Anybody can book to volunteer on our animal conservation projects and all we ask is that they have a passion for helping the animals.”

Older travellers are also a huge help for the younger participants, according to Alice Hawkes at volunteer organiser GVI: “We encourage volunteers of all ages. The maturity and experience level that older volunteers bring to our programmes benefits us in many ways, but one of the highlights is having volunteers who act as informal mentors for our younger volunteers, who are sometimes straight out of school. They provide a diverse wealth of knowledge to the group, and we have also seen some older volunteers go on to become senior staff members.”

Travel insurance

Getting travel insurance is essential, but might be harder to obtain depending on your age, where you’re going, and for how long. Standard policies typically run for trips no longer than 30 days, so if you’re going away for longer, you’ll need a special policy.

Equally, if you’re working with animals, undertaking any potentially dangerous activities, or in a country perceived as high risk you will need to look harder for a policy.

Age can be another barrier. Kevin McMullan, head of Saga travel insurance, says: “It can be challenging for older people to find travel insurance cover. Many providers refuse to cover people when they are over 65 and getting cover for some pre-existing medical conditions can also be tricky.”

Saga Travel Insurance comes with no upper age limit, but compare quotes across the market and don’t be led purely by price. It can be a false economy to buy a cut-price policy, which has so many exclusions that claiming on it would be impossible. Make sure you’re completely honest about the kinds of activities you will be involved in to get the right cover. The travel company you use to organise the trip might offer insurance – just make sure you read the terms and conditions. Smaller organisations might not offer insurance.

You can use an insurance broker to help find a specialist policy for your trip. Find one at the Chartered Insurance Institute. Visit: Cii.co.uk/web/app/membersearch/MemberSearch.aspx . 

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