Thought volunteering abroad was just a thing for the 20-somethings out there? Think again! Older adult travelers are increasingly leaving home to volunteer abroad and making impacts in ways younger volunteers can't. Accordingly, program providers are also modifying the way they run their programs and harnessing the experiences of older volunteers who want to put their professional experiences to good use with a volunteering abroad project.
Why older adult volunteers are unique
As an older volunteer, you have some considerations that don't apply to the cliche just-graduated-from-college volunteer stereotype. For you, it may be more important to have good infrastructure, privacy, and a program that understands the needs of older travelers. You may need flexible departure dates. You are probably willing to spend a little more to be comfortable and want a little extra independence. Or maybe you need a program that can place you and your family, spouse, or friends together on a project.
Older travelers are increasingly leaving home to volunteer abroad, and making impacts in ways younger volunteers can't.
You may also bring more skills, experience, and maturity to the table than someone fresh out of college; something that any responsible volunteer abroad program should want to make the most of. But we know the web (and GoOverseas) is crawling with great volunteer abroad opportunities, so how do you find one that matches up with all of these? We've done the work for you, and gathered a list of six great program providers who not only meet the unique needs of older travelers but want you as a volunteer!
Great for short-term programs: Earthwatch Institute
Available locations: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, The Bahamas, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Iceland, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Mongolia, Peru, Portugal, South Africa, Uganda
Older adult volunteers who are looking for a 1-2 week commitment will find the perfect fit with Earthwatch Institute. These short-term programs offer flexibility as well. Work is graded as "easy" to "strenuous" which refers to the amount of hiking and the overall activity level. Former volunteer Mary says, "Your hike may be 2 miles or 6, easy or difficult, but at the end, tired and happy, you will be retrieved by the staff and brought back to the camp for lunch."
Volunteers can agree though, that the short duration doesn't mean the experience is any less meaningful. According to one 70-year-old past participant, Paula, "No phone, no TV, and no internet mean that we talk, we sing together, we play games, and we enjoy a true person to person experience, sharing our diverse cultures."
Great for unique skills matching: GVI
Available locations: Cambodia, Costa Rica, Fiji, Ghana, Greece, Laos, Seychelles, South Africa, Thailand, Zambia, and more
GVI not only supports but wants older volunteers. "For a lot of the projects GVI runs, we need volunteers with special skills," states their website, which means they recognize older volunteers make a bigger impact on their host communities by applying their professional knowledge and skill sets to their assignments. Signing up for a program provider who understands this not only means you'll feel like you're making a real contribution, but it's a key trait of a responsible volunteer abroad program.
For Bob O., volunteering as an English teacher with GVI in Laos meant he not only helped his Laotian students improve their English, but came back from the experience with additional skills and stories for his students back in the US. As a teaching professional, he not only applied and adapted an existing set of skills to his volunteer position but acted as a cultural ambassador for Laos after returning home.
GVI can also offer private accommodations with better amenities (such as hot water and a fan) that aren't listed on their website for a small surcharge. As they put it, it's never too late to volunteer or take a gap year!
Great for comfort upgrades: Lead Adventures
Available locations: Ecuador, Galapagos Islands
"Lead Adventures offers our adult volunteers the opportunity to participate in any of the multiple programs we offer with the added comfort that adults seek." This means that volunteers can choose to stay in a hotel instead of a hostel, upgrade transportation options, and opt to have more independent travel while participating in one of their socially and environmentally responsible volunteer programs in Ecuador and the Galapagos.
Though they offer affordable, locally-focused programs and great consideration for their grown-up volunteers, they only work in Ecuador and the Galapagos -- something to keep in mind if you were hoping to brush up on your French skills or explore Southeast Asia.
Great for retired professionals: Projects Abroad
Available locations: Argentina, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Fiji, Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Mongolia, Nepal, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania
Projects Abroad has a variety of program types, including one for skilled professional retirees in their Professional Volunteering Abroad and Career Breaks. With these projects, volunteers can choose their dates and length of the program, while Projects Abroad "matches each volunteer to a placement where [their] existing knowledge will have the greatest impact." The flexibility of Projects Abroad and its dedication to harnessing the expertise of its volunteers makes it yet another excellent volunteer abroad program for older travelers.
For those still working, Projects Abroad has programs specifically for volunteers aged 50+.
Great for family volunteering: IVHQ
Available locations: over 50 countries including Australia, Croatia, Jordan, Morocco, Portugal, Uganda, Zimbabwe
And last, but not least, IVHQ (International Volunteer HQ) has made it on our list of great volunteer programs for older adults for their flexibility, dedication to keeping volunteers safe, variety of programs, and experience in organizing volunteer projects for just about any type of volunteer you can think of. IVHQ is especially flexible for families who want to volunteer together.
For Hilma L., IVHQ was the best program she found to allow for her and her 17-year-old grandson to volunteer and make a difference together. When searching for volunteer programs, she "had visited many volunteer sites on the web and compared cost, safety testimonials, and credentials; IVHQ was 'top of the class'".
IVHQ actively seeks out partner organizations that will have a legitimate need for volunteers.
Another reason we like them for older volunteers? IVHQ <em>"actively seeks out partner organizations that will have a legitimate need for volunteers"</em> and wants their volunteers not just to have a good time, but to make a difference during their time abroad.
Great for inclusive volunteering: Habitat for Humanity
Available locations: Argentina, Cambodia, El Salvador, Kenya, Romania
Habitat for Humanity has programs across the US, but did you know they operate overseas, too? Not only do they support projects abroad, but they also support inclusivity for volunteers as well. Habitat believes that volunteers with physical disabilities or health conditions shouldn't be excluded from participation. Project sites have jobs that range from rigorous digging and raising walls to lower-impact work like gardening and painting.
Those with dietary restrictions are also readily accommodated. According to their FAQs, "Prior to the build, each volunteer will fill out a detailed questionnaire on their dietary requirements, and all meals will be adjusted accordingly."
It's never too late to volunteer abroad
It's never too late to volunteer abroad, teach English, or take a grown-up gap year. Some might even argue it's more beneficial to the communities you will work with to have an older volunteer who can bring professional expertise and a mature attitude to their development projects.
As an older adult volunteer, you'll need to know your needs and look for programs that can match them. If a program has no mention of special accommodations they make for older volunteers, send them an e-mail -- they may be able to help you. With a little elbow grease and internet research, you're certain to find the right program for you!