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Cuso International

Not Just for Kids: Volunteering Abroad for Retirees

By Claudia Laroye

People with decades of experience bring valuable skills to a volunteer placement.

A chance meeting at a University of British Columbia (UBC) volunteer fair kickstarted 69-year-old Christia Roberts’ journey down a path that would change her life.

A professor at UBC, Roberts had stopped at a booth for Cuso International. She wanted to pick up a pamphlet, which highlighted the organization’s mission to recruit experienced professionals to volunteer abroad, a concept she found appealing. But it was a volunteer posting tailor-made for Roberts’ professional skills as a plant biologist that caught her eye. 

“I thought to myself, ‘This posting is written for me. I’m going to do that when I retire,’” recalls Roberts. Nearing retirement, she knew that engaging in a volunteer placement working with organic farmers in rural Colombia with Cuso would be her next move.

“My family was concerned about my safety, but the only thing on my mind was the work,” says Roberts, who turned 70 during her 12 months in Colombia. “I wanted to know what kind of work needed to be done, and could I do it?”

There’s a misconception that volunteering abroad is only for high school and university students. Age isn’t a barrier to giving back to your global community—and in fact, it may just be a benefit. Mature adults with decades of practical and professional expertise and work experiences carry a valuable toolkit of defined, seasoned skills into a volunteer abroad posting.

Those who’ve raised families and wound down careers can find a renewed sense of purpose and inspiration through participation in volunteer abroad experiences. From working with animals in sanctuaries, to building kindergartens and homes alongside local families, and collaborating with rural farmers, retirees can find opportunities to utilize their skills, life experiences and channel their passions in the spirit of service to others.

Finding volunteer abroad opportunities

For those who are or have recently left professional careers and are active in religious, alumni or social groups, these large networks are excellent sources of information to research potential volunteer opportunities and the organizations that offer them.

A good place to start is by contacting existing networks to see who among friends, family members and colleagues may have done a volunteer abroad experience, and with which organization. Word of mouth recommendations from trusted contacts are powerful references for new volunteers.

Perform some self-analysis about what kind of volunteer opportunity you’re looking for. What professional, practical or language skills do you have that might meet the needs of a community or volunteer placement organization, and for what length of time? Do you want to use existing skills, or do you prefer to give back in a completely different way?

Age isn’t a barrier to giving back to your global community—and in fact, it may just be a benefit.

For Dave Willett of Palm Springs, California, his professional experience as an architect primed him for domestic volunteer placements with Habitat for Humanity, and later volunteering abroad in his 60s and 70s with With Change in Mind (WCIM), where he designed schools and playgrounds in Salima, Malawi.

“If you’re a professional, you kind of have an obligation to use your skills to give back a little bit,” says Willett. On his three visits to Malawi, he has worked on the ground with contractors and local labour to design and build simple and culturally appropriate buildings that are in keeping with village needs.

Previous professional experience isn’t always a requirement for volunteering with WCIM and Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village. But Yvette Macabuag, head of program quality and impact at Cuso International, notes that Cuso specifically recruits volunteers with experience, based on the needs of organizational and government partners in the countries in which it operates. Current volunteer placement opportunities at Cuso include applications for an ecommerce ddvisor in Columbia, communications advisor in Cameroon and a gender advisor in Nigeria.

“Our volunteers are required to have a qualification before matching them with placements overseas,” says Macabuag. “We want to help build local skills and knowledge with help from Canadians who have those backgrounds and experiences and who are looking for the opportunity to give back.”

While many volunteers find that their professional lives flow easily into their volunteer abroad roles, others may want to focus on passions outside of their previous work life. Opportunities like nurturing a love of animals through volunteering to help earth’s more vulnerable creatures.

Founded in 2012, Barrie, Ontario-based Animal Experience International (AEI) sends volunteers to work with local communities promoting animal welfare around the world.

“We specialize in ethical, consent-based volunteering,” notes AEI founder Nora Livingstone. “The community invites us and retains full autonomy over the projects.”

All the leadership on the ground is local, and AEI volunteers assist with conservation and animal welfare efforts that can last from one week to several months. For example, AEI sends volunteers to Cuba twice a year to tally native bat populations. In 2021, they found bats that were thought to have been extirpated from the island because of development.

Volunteers with AEI don’t require veterinary knowledge or professional experience, simply a passion for animals and desire to perform valuable tasks that truly help the welfare of animals on the ground.

Preparing for a volunteer abroad placement

Getting ready to depart on a volunteer abroad placement, whether for weeks or months, involves some level of preparation and training.

Most volunteer placement organizations have programs in place to prepare their volunteers for their experiences. Volunteers like Roberts, who signed on for her year in Colombia in 2016, went through Cuso’s pre-departure “Skills and Knowledge for Working in Development” (SKWID) program.

Over four days, volunteers learn everything they need to know to prepare for their placement, including sessions on gender equality, power and privilege, cultural adaptation, managing expectations, safety and security, and strategies to manage challenging situations.

Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program (currently on hiatus due to the pandemic) has a comprehensive set of pre-departure resources, as well as a network of previous volunteers upon which to draw for information and support.

Practicalities of volunteering abroad for retirees

It is important for mature volunteers to consider some of the practicalities involved in volunteering abroad. These can include insurance to fully cover health concerns, including pre-existing conditions.

Some volunteer placement organizations, such as Cuso International and AEI provide emergency medical insurance and some out-of-country costs for their participants.

If such coverage is not offered by the sponsoring organization, Amanda Hand, account manager with G1G Travel Insurance, recommends that volunteers purchase a travel medical insurance plan that covers them if they were sick or injured abroad, including things like repatriation, emergency evacuation, and unexpected medical care coverage.

“It's important for older travellers and those participating in volunteer abroad experiences to obtain necessary travel and health insurance,” she says.

A more challenging task may be taking stock of one’s physical and mental capabilities and ensuring they can meet the demands of the volunteer placement. Volunteering in another country can be demanding on the mind, body and spirit.

“It’s tough,” remembers Roberts. “It’s not just the differences in work style or the cultural differences. In my case, the work was physically hard—climbing steep rural hillsides around the city of Ibagué, south of Bogota, Colombia. I’m active but I was physically at my limit many times.”

For longer volunteer abroad placements, one also leaves family behind, which may include young grandchildren. Re-entry back into the home country can present unforeseen challenges; one must fit into one’s life again, but as a changed individual shaped by the experiences and people encountered while away. It may take time to acclimate and adjust.

Placement agencies recognize these challenges. Cuso International sponsors a reintegration weekend to assist returning volunteers to integrate their experiences and learning and fosters a support network of alumni to keep discussions, dialogue and commiseration sessions open.

For mature volunteers who’ve undertaken placements abroad, the rigours and challenges they faced were nothing in comparison to the rewards, enrichment and personal development they experienced.

“I’m so glad that I did it,” remarks Roberts. “I had wanted to do it my whole career. I was embedded in that society and saw more of Colombia than I could have imagined. That year was a highlight of my life. It was not good—it was great.”

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Travel with purpose; travel for good. Articles, resources and events for ethical and meaningful travel, volunteering, working and studying abroad.

Verge believes in travel for change. International experience creates global citizens, who can change our planet for the better. This belief is at the core of everything we do.

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