Why did you choose this program?
I chose a teaching program that would not be too taxing for me physically as I had surgery on my spine 18 months ago. My attention was drawn to the Women's Empowerment program offered to young women who do not have equal access to education.
I was keen to be involved in a program that improved the employment, health and self esteem of young women. Also, I was instantly attracted to the beautiful city and countryside of Luang Prabang and knew I would enjoy visiting waterfalls, the Mekong river, temples, etc.
What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
As a mature volunteer who has recently retired, I did not have a program provider for support. However, it wasn't necessary as the process of searching and choosing a volunteer program with GVI was very easy. GVI contacted me after I registered an interest and answered all my questions, which was helpful.
After booking a place, GVI gave me field and training manuals with comprehensive information about the accommodation, kit lists, volunteering, living in Luang Prabang, etc. This information was really useful and helped me plan my packing and prepared me for what to expect. I was also allocated a GVI link person who answered my very practical questions which was very reassuring.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
Volunteering and living in Luang Prabang was an amazing cultural experience that was very rewarding and enjoyable. However, during my trip, I faced numerous challenges such as very basic accommodation, young volunteers, limited teaching resources, high humidity, etc. I would advise that other embrace the culture which helped me to cope with the conditions and feel an overall sense of achievement. I wish I had taken a laptop and bought a local SIM card, which would have been invaluable for teaching.
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
All my meals were provided at a restaurant local to the volunteer accommodation and a Cafe linked to the teaching centre, which served tasty Laos and Thai dishes, with some western options. After breakfast, usually pancakes or local fruits, I took a TukTuk or bike ride to the teaching centre. Travelling in the heat and negotiating busy traffic on unmade and waterlogged roads was quite an experience!
My timetable included 3-4 hours teaching per day with time scheduled to meet my mentor for lesson planning. GVI provided 10 hours of certificated training in Teaching English and Foreign Language (TEFL) and an introduction to Laos language. This provided me with a good foundation for teaching and gave me confidence.
Initially, I taught alongside a more experienced volunteer and felt ready to take on my own classes after 1 week or so. I appreciated that GVI recognised my specialist skills and gave me freedom to plan careers workshops. They also gave me an amazing opportunity to teach on an extra curricular first aid program, which involved staying overnight in a rural community.
In my second week, I attended daily cultural sessions facilitated by GVI, which gave me an insight into Buddhism and social norms. I later realized how much this understanding showed me how to respect the local culture and had influenced my behavior. When teaching and living in Laos, I was a respected member of the community, which was an enriching cultural experience for me.
Every evening I met up with the other volunteers to share stories and experiences of different projects. In the evenings, we often walked to the night market, strolled along the Nam Khan river, and sometimes ate a meal in a local restaurant or went to a local bar.
By the weekend, we were ready to explore Luang Prabang and enjoyed visiting the Mekong river, temples, waterfalls, botanical gardens, etc. We also took time to visit temples for chanting and meditating, and early morning alms giving.
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?
When planning my volunteering trip, I was anxious that, as a mature volunteer, I would be on my on during free time. In the first 2 weeks, I was the only mature volunteer and did not have a natural buddy. However, I made a point of engaging with my fellow volunteers and wasn't shy in asking, 'do you mind if I tag along?' Although this was difficult for me, it was part of my resolve to embrace the challenges of volunteering and I reaped the rewards by enjoying my time with the younger volunteers.
Is volunteering just for students?
I retired from my role as a manager for a hospice nurse specialist team and needed a diversion to help me adjust to retirement, consider new opportunities and have a break. I decided that cultural immersion as part of volunteering would be an ideal way of helping me to cope with this life change.
I had some nagging doubts that volunteering abroad is for students and younger people. However, I stayed positive and I am now so glad that I have had this amazing cultural experience where I have learnt new skills and have made a positive contribution to sustainable projects.
I hope that I have inspired mature people that volunteering is not just for students and it is never too late to learn new skills and to volunteer abroad.