It’s never too late……to volunteer overseas

Whether you missed the chance to travel before your career began or simply feel that one gap year isn’t enough, there’s never been a better time to volunteer. You don’t have to be 18 and wanting to take a year out before university to be a volunteer. In fact, as far as many overseas volunteer organisations are concerned, the older you are the better

Demand for professionals such as doctors, teachers, engineers and nurses in developing nations is high. But simply having a few decades of life experience can make older volunteers more valuable than their teenage counterparts

In the past few years the number of over 50s wanting to work overseas charities has soared. In 2003, one of the main UK volunteer organisations, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), even upped its age limit from 65 to 75 to capitalise on the growing number of older people who want to share their skills and experience, and of course enjoy some travelling at the same time

Getting paid or not

Volunteering means something different to almost every organisation you come across. Some agencies will cover your flight and cost of living while you are working and some are true ‘volunteer’ projects and expect you to cover all costs for the privilege of the experience.

If you’re looking for a more meaningful way to spend a few months anywhere than simply traveling around, volunteering is a wonderful way to spend your time. Most jobs that last less than a year or so are going to be the ones you have to pay for. Jobs that require a commitment of more than a year will offer often offer a basic stipend to cover some (though probably never all) of your costs

Whether you get paid and how much you get paid will also depend on your skills and how much they are in demand. Most paid volunteer opportunities are available to those who have a specialist skill. Engineers, doctors, nurses, environmentalists, emergency relief personnel and teachers are among the most asked for by volunteer agencies. If an organisation doesn’t require you to have specific skills then you will usually have to pay your own expenses as a volunteer

What to expect as a volunteer

- Basic Conditions : most volunteer opportunities take place in rural areas where you may not have ready access to running water and electricity. Housing can be very basic and you may be staying with local families

- Need for cultural adaptability : rural communities are usually more traditional than urban centres. As you’ll be working closely with the local population you’ll have to dress and behave in accordance with what is acceptable locally. General pace of life and work is much slower than in the UK. Don’t expect any organisation to run efficiently and without glitches

- Getting sick :  If you’re spending more than just a few weeks abroad, especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa, your chances of getting sick or even seriously ill with, for example, malaria or bilharzia, will also increase. Make sure you take all the medicine and precautions you need. The organisation you work with should brief you about health issues and don’t forget that local nurses and doctors will have plenty of experience with common afflictions (probably more so than your doctor at home). Initially you may also have some problems getting used to different foods and water. be sensible and you’ll be fine

- Personal growth : anyone who’s volunteered overseas ill probably tell you that the biggest impact their project had was not on the community but on themselves. Spending time immersed in another culture will change the way you look at life and is part of the appeal of volunteering

Volunteer stories and experiences

Before you decide to volunteer in you may be interested to learn what the typical experiences are of people already in the field.  You can find collections of volunteer stories and experiences on sites such as VSO, UN Volunteers and Medecins Sans Frontieres

There are many services offering volunteers and travellers the opportunity to keep an online diary of their experiences. An excellent resource is Travelblog which you an scroll through and find some good tips about working, traveling and living abroad

Finding out more

If you’re thinking of volunteering overseas, there are several websites that can help. Most don’t specifically cater for over 50s. Check out NMTBP’s Magnificent 7 websites for volunteering overseas for more information

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  1. Sarah

    February 03, 2012

    Hello. I’ve just started exploring the possibility of working abroad as a volunteer next year. Thought it was just for the young, but so far have been amazed at the opportunities for us old ‘uns. I don’t have any formal teaching qualifications, but did help out with French classes ages ago and took part in an English conversation program in Spain. I’d really enjoy getting involved in a community and am sure I’d learn far more than I’d ever teach. To my delight, I’ve already had a very positive response from an educational organisation in India!

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