Volunteer for a Change
Mature Canadians with a sense of adventure and their hearts in the right place are able to select from among numerous charitable organizations offering volunteering opportunities overseas
"I get restless on ordinary holidays," said Jane Ellens, age 64. She and husband, Dan Pearlman, love to explore the world but actively look for ways to get involved wherever they go. "It's not hard to find ways to volunteer. If you ask, the suggestions pour in."
In 2012, the pair decided to take an extended vacation, and volunteered with Cuso International to work in Tanzania. Combining their business skills, they decided to job-share a placement. They set off for an eventful year, working with rural hospitals to organize funding and programs for HIV AIDS, even making a film about their work.
Ellens and Pearlman are not alone. Many mature Canadians with a sense of adventure and their hearts in the right place are able to select from among numerous charitable organizations, older and new, small and large, broad-based or niche, taking short-term trips or long-stays. Besides Cuso, groups such as Developing World Connections, Travel Cuts, Canadian Alliance for Development Initiatives and Projects, Openmind Projects and Projects Abroad, among others, offer programs that might be a good fit for mature Canadians.
Interested in an off-the-beaten-track destination like Azerbaijan? The Toronto-area branch of the Intercultural Dialogue Institute has added that former Soviet nation to its partly sponsored trip to Turkey next year. Volunteers pay for their international and domestic travel costs while other costs are covered by the inviters.
A newer group, Dream for Uganda was launched in 2012 following a volunteer trip to Uganda by Metroland journalist Valerie Hill of Kitchener. Hill had visited Cambridge Secondary School, outside Kampala, and was enthralled when the kids from the school’s Suubi Performing Arts program did a concert of traditional music and dance.
In 2013 Hill and her friends brought eight students to Ontario for a tour and this past October, six members from Dream for Uganda spent one month at the high school, setting up a library and creating a music room. Dream for Uganda is now a registered non-profit with a mandate to support Cambridge Secondary School as the only performing-arts school in the region.
"We worked with volunteers of all ages, but we became surrogate parents for a whole group of younger volunteers," said Jane Ellens of her Cuso adventure. "In our lives, most of us tend to stick with people our own age and interests, but in Tanzania we lived and worked with people from a lot of different countries, of all ages, all political stripes and all walks of life. And we got to know Tanzania and its people in a way we never would have had we just travelled there on holiday."
Spending time volunteering in another country provided this pair with a new sense of purpose. "You feel so alive. Life is never dull," said Ellens. "It's the intellectual challenge of dealing with not just work – we've all worked all our lives – but also dealing with another way of life, another value system, another cultural norm. You're constantly stimulated."
Pamela Miles of Cuso International has heard this often. "Volunteering is one of the most fulfilling and unique experiences," she says. "You can experience firsthand, in an intimate way, cultures you would not normally learn about."
When Cuso International launched in 1961, it was the Canadian University Service Overseas, a volunteer organization that encouraged young university graduates to give two years to help a developing country. U.S. President John Kennedy issued a call to young people in America the same year, founding the Peace Corps.
Today, Cuso International encourages all ages to give a few months of their time to share their expertise in wide-ranging areas from health and education to business management and governance. And the volunteer time can vary from as little as a month to a full year, or more.
After 30 years as a schoolteacher in P.E.I., Mary Hickey decided it was time to share her skills. She has been back to Rwanda twice. “There are many teachers who retire in Canada but aren’t ready for retirement,” she said. “This is good, meaningful work.”
Would Ellens go back? "In a heartbeat!" she says. "In fact, Dan and I are currently trying to figure out a way to do some work in India."
What does it cost? All expenses for Cuso International volunteers are covered but volunteers are asked to help by fundraising $2,000 to support the organization to place future volunteers. Support is provided and many go to their community or church group to do this.
Organizations mentioned in this article:
• Developing World Connections – developingworldconnections.org
• Travel Cuts - travelcuts.com
• Canadian Alliance for Development Initiatives and Projects - http://www.cadip.org
• Openmind Projects - http://www.openmindprojects.ca
• Projects Abroad - http://www.projects-abroad.ca
• Dream for Uganda – dreamforuganda.com
• Cuso International – http://cusointernational.org
• Intercultural Dialogue Institute – interculturaldialog.com.