Volunteering helps London couple discover the world
The quote, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go,” comes from poet and playwright T. S. Eliot, but it also describes the spirit Alastair Henry and Candas Whitlock live by.
Henry, 70, and Whitlock, 67, have spent the past five years traveling the globe either on their own backpacking adventures or while volunteering in communities from South America to Southeast Asia.
The couple may have found each other here in the Forest City, but it has been their overseas adventures that inspired them to not only change other people’s lives, but their own as well.
“The problem is when you are in the forest walking around, all you see is the trees. When you are wherever you live, you are part of that society. You see the world through that lens,” Henry said. “It's only when you step out of that, put yourself in a different culture, you can see things differently. You are open and form new opinions about things.”
Henry retired in 2001, at age 57, and soon found himself wondering what direction his life was to take. After taking a position with the First Nations community of Lutsel K'e, Northwest Territories (population 300), Henry said he began to understand how different his life could be.
After a couple years of working as general manager of the community’s development corporation, he moved on to volunteer opportunities in Bangladesh, and Nigeria before coming back to Canada and moving in with his daughter and her children in London.
He decided it was time to volunteer a little closer to home, so he took on the position of treasurer with the Northwest London Resource Centre in 2008.
That is where he met Whitlock, who had been working as the centre’s executive director. The two became friends and Henry started telling Whitlock about his overseas adventures.
She instantly knew she had the new direction she had also been looking for after a 40-year career in social services.
“I had already decided I was going to retire in 2009 because I had this itch I couldn’t scratch to travel. I definitely wasn’t sitting behind a desk anymore,” said Whitlock, who then signed up with the same organization Henry volunteers with — CUSO, which used to be the abbreviation for Canadian University Students Overseas.
As fate would have it, CUSO had a pair of volunteer opportunities in Kingston, Jamaica. So, the two set off in January 2010 to be volunteers, to live and work together.
They returned to London in 2011, but soon decided to go backpacking through Central America for four months. While in the north part of Nicaragua, Henry and Whitlock decided they wanted to do another placement with CUSO.
As it turned out, they just happened to have a couple of opportunities for us in Georgetown, Guyana. Henry also undertook a one-month contract in the Rupunni rainforest with another Canadian-funded organization called CESO, which used to stand for Canadian Executive Services Overseas.
When they finished in South America, they came back to Canada, albeit briefly, before heading off for a four-month backpacking tour of Southeast Asia. They started off in Thailand before traveling to Bali, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Since returning to Canada, Henry finished his memoir, Awakening in the Northwest Territories, before the two collaborated on their next book, Go For It: Volunteering Adventures on Roads Less Travelled. A third book is expected next year.
They have also created audio-visual presentations around their travels, something they shared at 88 venues in the past year alone.
“There was this sense it was such a phenomenal experience going overseas,” Whitlock said. “Just giving yourself to something so far beyond your ordinary life, it was so rewarding.”
The United Nation’s International Volunteer Day takes place on Dec. 5 and Henry said he feels giving of one’s time in far away places has given him “a feeling of total fulfillment,” as well as the opportunity to share his talents with people in communities around the world.
Of course, it also creates some confusing feelings when returning home to a society that takes so much for granted.
“Alastair and I have this same experience, you come out of a place like Guyana or Jamaica and walk into one of our big malls, honestly, I feel sick,” Whitlock said. “We have come from places where people are lying on the road, aren’t even fed, it is a culture shock when you come back because it's so overwhelming around what North America has.”
Henry and Whitlock are setting up a few more presentations around the area before heading off for a book tour — and some more backpacking — in Newfoundland next year.
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