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Globetrotting and compassion meet with voluntourism

April, 2010

We live in world of great need, a world where compassionate volunteers contribute their skills to help the uneducated, to provide for the needy and protect creatures that beautify our environment. These groups are often composed of seniors who combine their passion for travel with a desire to make this world a better place.

I talked with one such individual who is trying to make a difference.

Montreal-born Ellen Park, a 67-year-old retiree, will soon leave her home in Durango, Colo., for a three-week stay in Myanmar (formally Burma) with her husband, Ross. They will contribute skills acquired over a lifetime of corporate grind to assist village leadership teams in remote countryside regions.

Accessible only by ox-cart, the Parks will join other members of the Shanta Foundation to establish micro-loans, build schools, train teachers and improve health conditions.

“Years of traveling for business and pleasure instilled in me an appreciation for other cultures and a love of exotic places,” Park says. They also plan to travel within Myanmar.

“After retirement, my husband and I began to volunteer in our community for both local and international causes, especially after being inspired by Greg Mortenson (co-author of the 2007 best-seller Two Cups of Tea; One Man’s Mission To Promote Peace ... One School At A Time) during his visit to Durango.

“Why do we do this? We help the world in our very small way because we can, it provides more meaning to our travel, and it leverages the expertise we acquired during years of work, making our ‘retirement’ an extension of our lives.”

And age is no limitation. For Nettie Steinman, a feisty workaholic in her 90s, travelling and volunteering are inseparable pursuits. She is associated with the 20-to-30-member groups organized by the Jewish National Fund’s Israel programs.

She has taught English as a second language in the regular school system, operated a used clothing and furniture outlet for new immigrants and helped the administration in a rehabilitation hospital.

“You can’t waste your time,” she asserts, “and it’s a way of giving back. It’s very exciting to work and travel with people from all over the United States and Canada. You make some very close friends.”

A Myanmar man is tries on reading glasses provided by Shanta Foundation’s volunteer ophthalmologist

Nettie stays in Israel for three months at a time, and while she pays for her expenses there, the JNF program provides a bus every afternoon for sightseeing. She has volunteered there nine times.

An Internet search reveals dozens of destinations for volunteers in almost every part of the world, organized by non-profits. There are programs in Asia, Africa, China, Australia, Israel, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean and North America that help improve the lot of humanity and threatened wildlife.

GoEco is one non-governmental organization that specializes in nature destinations: You can work at a wildlife hospital in Greece, a wildlife rehabilitation centre in South Africa, a lion rehabilitation and conservation centre in Zimbabwe, a giant-panda centre in China or a sea turtle conservation program in Costa Rica.

In the Costa Rica program, for example, volunteers live near the Atlantic Coast beaches and protect baby sea turtles from poachers. Can there be a more thrilling accomplishment than helping thousands of these little hatchlings surmount the human threat and return to the open sea?

Volunteers in most of these programs are responsible for their flight, insurance and personal expenses. Most organizations also charge a weekly fee that includes a room and three meals a day, plus training, ground support, airport pick-ups and the like. For your accommodations, a wonderful feature of many of these projects is that you get to live with a local family. The cost for the two-week sea turtle program, for example, is $800.

And if your humanitarian ideals run to something a little more quirky, there is a program in Honduras to preserve the mongrove habitat and research its major inhabitant: the endangered Utila spiny-tailed iguana! That destination will set you back $620 for a four-week stay.

Photos: Tom Cheatham

Other voluntourism programs around the globe carry a more human development plea. In many programs, the only skill you need is a caring heart. You can provide such services as helping children with disabilities in China, caring for the elderly in Peru or nurturing orphans in Ghana. A two-week stay in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, providing non-formal education, personal hygiene, and games and trips for orphaned children costs $600.

In a world of great need, there is always is always a place where skills in language training, health care, construction, education or even car mechanics can be put to good use, all the while allowing you to experience a foreign culture. We seniors are searching for ways to enhance our personal growth and find challenges so that our remaining years need not be focused on cocktail party invites or lolling on a beach.

Life can get depressing when the only focus is on you – all you need to do is reach out and touch the lives of others.

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