A Senior’s Take On Volunteering Abroad
Aged 71, IVHQ volunteer Michael Small didn’t let age become a barrier as he pursued a dream of volunteering abroad and reliving his days as a teacher. Follow Michael’s journey as he travels to volunteer in Cambodia…
‘Don’t leave it too late,’ my sister said, showing me her enchanting display of photographs of Angkor Wat on her ipad. Her words touched a raw spot with me, a seasoned procrastinator. For many years I had longed to stay at Siem Reap and spend a week marvelling at the temples. But having retired and no longer earning an income, I had become reluctant to travel overseas. So with my sister’s warning ringing in my ears, I searched the internet for voluntary teaching positions. Several organizations were listed, but the most appealing was IVHQ. The tone of its website was warmly encouraging, the choice of programmes was impressive and the organization was based in New Zealand, a reassuring sign.
I applied to teach English in Cambodia for four weeks. At seventy-one, I anticipated being rejected, even though I am fit. ‘You’re brave,’ was a common reaction in my startled Over-55s village. Or ‘How generous!’ However, I was simply concerned with doing something useful, being of service. Although I had been a secondary school teacher for forty years, I still had doubts about whether I should or could make a comeback. As a senior citizen, I feared my voice wouldn’t project and that I’d be measured against much younger and very enthusiastic volunteers. And whether I could strike the right note with primary school children.
My fears were allayed on the first day of teaching. Tiny tots of five and six jumped into our arms and clung on to us as if we were old friends. Once inside our classroom – I was paired with a nineteen year old who’d never taught before – I immediately felt at ease: the old physical gestures and tricks of teaching returned and I enjoyed hamming up pronunciation practice and acting out new vocabulary that thrilled the youngsters. The most touching situation came when I was asked my age. Anxiously I counted in tens on my fingers, but the children hugged me even harder, such was their respect for us oldies.
I knew from the prospectus that songs and games would be a welcome asset, but singing wasn’t one of my skills, especially as the children loved chanting oral drills as loudly as possible, such as counting numbers 1 to 100 or the alphabet. So I sang ABC to the tune of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ as softly as possible, nervous that I couldn’t remember the last line. To my surprise, the children joined in with angelic softness half-way through. I phased myself out as they finished with their own tag. A very moving moment.
The chance to visit Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields as well as riding an elephant in a wilderness jungle gave me the opportunity to familiarise myself with the country and the people of Cambodia. Soon after, I signed up for a month’s teaching in the Himalayas. ‘Aren’t you worried about getting sick?’ friends asked. No, I was more concerned about running out of time to experience another culture and about removing myself from my comfort zone in Australia.
I have also just returned from India, teaching young Tibetan monks for four weeks, a remarkable experience and am currently considering a third placement in South America.
If you’re inspired by Michael’s story, find out how to become a senior volunteer abroad with IVHQ.