At 68 years old I traveled to and volunteered in Thailand. I put a backpack full of what I needed on my back, filled a carry on bag for the long trip on the plane, and got on a bus to O’hare airport. I boarded a plane to Dubai, Bangkok and finally Chaing Rai Thailand, where a person from IVHQ’s local team picked me up.
A 27 hour trip which included crossing the international date line was just words, understood through prior knowledge and the concept of time. A new understanding came through the actual experience of it all, and so the learning began. I constantly heard, “Oh my, at your age or at this point in my life I would never do this” or “I’m too old, I could never do it”. But the truth is at my age and at this point in my life, I couldn’t say no.
I slept on an inch mattress atop a cot in my single room with a clothes line closet, a single light and an old sloping dresser. Each morning I climbed up into the back of an old truck and bumped down dirt roads to the schools where I taught English to children, wonderful children, who sat in old scratched desks in open air classrooms with few supplies. I loved hearing, “Good morning teacher, how are you?”, and I loved responding “Good morning students, I am happy and grateful, how are you?”. I ate rice morning, noon and night, I washed my own dishes, took cold showers, curled my hair using bobby pins and became addicted to 3 and 1 coffee. My water bottle was always full, my clothes always dusty, and my soul always singing.
Older than the other volunteers by at least 40 years, I became a life long friend, a Facebook friend, a writer of college recommendations, a networker, an adopted grandmother and a teacher to some of the most amazing young volunteers from all over the world. Ann and Serene always made room for me at meals, Kirk was my teaching buddy, Layni shared her master’s thesis in microeconomics and Yangjing offered me help up and down if I needed it, though my ego often got in the way and I rarely took the help. I also came to know myself better, and can now say out loud and joyously own the fact that I am a great teacher and love, love, love teaching!
During playtime we played Duck-Duck-Goose, a favorite of the children. I often found myself trapped, finally realizing that since I got up more slowly than the younger volunteers, the little ones thought I couldn’t catch them. But Grandmothers have a few tricks up up their sleeves, and I decided to run the other way towards them and not after them. Laughter rang out, others copied, and a whole new game came to be.
So much of what I could do and what I did is because I am a Grandmother. I know that fun is central while laughter, music and trust is imperative. With only a little time allotted to teach, an hour for each class, trust must be built quickly so learning can occur. Grandmothers build trust quickly; it is part of the wisdom that comes with age. Being silly is also part of being a Grandparent, and it goes a long way to making children comfortable and safe.
My age was my badge of honor with the children as well as with the volunteers. Though I did not go on weekend bike trips or hike miles to camp under the stars to catch a beautiful sunset, I experienced Thailand outside of the classroom. I hiked up locals trails to waterfalls, I did yoga every morning, I climbed in and out of trucks, took walks out into the villages surrounding the volunteer camp, and meditated with gratitude for my good fortune. I traveled to Chaing Rai, Chaing Mai, the Golden Triangle and Bangkok and the only taxi I took was the water taxi in Bangkok to go to the Oriental Hotel.
I stayed a month however I was ready to come home. I am not, nor do I want to be in my 20’s again. I love who and where I am and I know my age is my blessing when it comes to teaching. In saying this, it does not mean I won’t consider doing outdoor things. I am looking at spending two weeks at a coffee plantation for my next adventure. Mornings in the fields and the afternoon teaching. I keep healthy and strong, loving that I can go for two weeks and never lamenting that I didn’t do it when I was younger and more able to have gone for six weeks.
I have so much to give and I get so much in return. It is my wish to encourage more Grandmothers and Grandfathers to volunteer. It will make the world just that much better.
- Catherine Tillman
_For more information on becoming an older volunteer, take a look at IVHQ’s Senior volunteer page. _