Time to spare, experience to give

Posted on October 15, 2014 by Eleanor McKenzie
Mature man trying to remember something

I have long been a fan of charity shops. It started one day during a visit to Manchester in my A-level year, if my memory is correct, when I spotted a retro 1940s dress in an Oxfam shop window. It cost me five pence and I wore it long after I’d finished university.

The reason I mention this is that, as we know, these establishments wouldn’t function if it weren’t for volunteers. Most of the shops I’ve visited are staffed by lovely ladies, who are in all likelihood somebody’s Gran. Volunteering provides a great opportunity to get out of the house and meet new people whilst also being of great service to a charity and the people it helps.

Volunteering, of course, requires time, which is why it tends to be the preserve of the retired. However, it appears that the younger members of the 50+ generations are keen volunteers, but not in their local high street shops: they want something more adventurous, such as Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

For some volunteers, such as Michael Rosenkrantz, it is a dream come true. Michael says: “I wanted to be a volunteer when I was 18. But, I only got the opportunity when I was 51 and my children had grown.” He joined VSO and worked with disabled children in India and then in 2012, he was sent to join the VSO team in Nepal, where the charity has a strategy to reduce poverty in 100 villages.

Michael and his fellow 50+ workers have an advantage over younger people: the youngsters may find it easier to rough it and should have more energy, but Michael has life and work experience. As Michael’s case shows, he was able to use his basketball coaching experience to train the Nepalese Army team and a number of wheelchair basketball teams – a first for Nepal. According to VSO over 800 volunteers from 30 countries have worked for VSO in Nepal over the past 50 years.

The Huffington Post reports that in the U.S., the Peace Corps is one of the more popular organisations attracting an increasing number of Baby Boomer volunteers. This increase is attributed to the idea that those born from 1944 to 1964 are rejecting conventional stereotypes about ageing and are “throwing themselves” into volunteering.

It’s true that long-term volunteering in certain sectors falls as Baby Boomers age: it’s not quite as attractive a proposition to live in the jungle for a year at 75+, at least that is what you would think. Instead, the number of 60+ volunteers is actually increasing. The Peace Corps says this age group has more than doubled in the last three years. Via the Huffington Post, it reports that an 81-year-old man recently completed a 27-month assignment in the Ukraine. The man in question is Bernie Cheriff of New York, who has four children and six grandchildren.

Third World Classroom

In addition, older seniors are creating an industry that caters for the short-term senior volunteer. Take a visit to Over 50 and Overseas, where you can browse a remarkable number of volunteer projects. All you have to do is select the type of project you’re interested in: you can choose from eight areas including Animal Aid and Health for example. You also choose a region and then a specific country. I clicked on Animal Aid and found links to a number of “voluntourism operators” such as Biosphere Expeditions and African Conservation Experience amongst others.

These are ‘not-for-profit’ organisations, where you pay for your travel and accommodation. It’s part of a new approach to volunteering, in which we pay for the privilege of helping to make a difference. There is nothing wrong with that.

After all, what is the difference between paying for a cultural sightseeing tour of India and paying for a few weeks volunteering with a project in India? It’s simply a different way of gaining new experiences and acquiring knowledge. True, your holiday photos may look somewhat different.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office says that ‘”35% of all trips abroad are taken by over 50’s, and 70% of over 50’s say they are more adventurous with their trips now than they were ten years ago.” Although, it does warn the over 50s to prepare thoroughly for any volunteer adventure. If you’re feeling inspired, read about some people’s experiences here.

If I don’t manage to live with lions in Zimbabwe, I know I’ll still be welcomed with open arms by the ladies of my local charity shop, who can always use a hand with sorting out the items. I might just find another vintage item that I’ll treasure for years. It will just need to be a size or two bigger!

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.