By the time we reach midlife, most of us have accrued a fair amount of wisdom, experience, expertise and knowledge. That’s why I decided to put all this to good use, being confident enough to share a volunteering holiday experience with a small group of late bloomers, an excellent way to explore a new country but also to help others who truly need it.
When Jacquie Lindgren – a dear friend of mine whose family has set up the ETATU charity in Milalani, a small fishing town on the southeastern coast of Kenya, near Mombasa– invited me to volunteer in a school for children with special needs, as well as enjoy the beauty of her Indian Ocean beach house, I leapt at the chance.
I was one of three of her oldest and dearest who were invited on the trip as she believed our backgrounds could make a difference in the lives of these children.
Our expertise ranged from early years and special needs teacher to an educational psychologist, journalist and general enthusiastic friend (me)! We did not know each other (besides our mutual friend) and yet this was a perfect challenge and wonderful opportunity we all willingly embraced.
The benefits of volunteering holidays
Volunteering opportunities are vast and diverse. According to a new study in the Journal of Happiness, people who volunteer not only feel stronger and mentally and physically healthier. They also report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction.
In general, working with the local people will offer you an insight into the country and culture that you’d be hard-pressed to experience as a more-generic tourist.
While you get to see the “real” way of life in the community you’re visiting, you can also share your experience, teach new skills, and support the community in ways that will help to create lasting change.
You might even catch your calling by trying the unexpected.
The reality on the ground
Choosing the right charity program for your volunteering holiday that suits you, and sparks your inspiration is key to making the most of this experience.
ETATU charity is run by a small team of local people and Jacquie – or ‘Madam Jacquie’ as she is called here- usually divides her time between the UK and Msambweni, and this proved to be key to ensuring we had a successful and fulfilling experience.
As someone well-known and respected on the ground, Jacquie, who has been part of the community for the past three decades, helped us into what can be a challenging and confusing environment for the uninitiated.
It’s tempting to want to go in all guns blazing believing you can change their world for the better in an instant.
This is nothing further from the truth.
Building and gaining the trust of those you are here to help is fundamental. Meaningful relationships and cultural understanding are the stepping stones to a lasting and impactful volunteer experience.
Therefore, spending time observing the situation and taking in your surroundings is essential. Yet nothing can prepare you for the reality on the ground.
We had all taken an extra suitcase packed with teaching resources for the school and including clothes and shoes for the children. We soon realised we needed to sort it all out into smaller more digestible piles, to be taken into the school in small doses so as to be able to make the best use of the items and so we could demonstrate and explain how to use them with the limited teaching and support staff available.
The need was overwhelming and on so many levels. But with Jacquie’s well-established relationships and with our midlife experience and knowledge, we were able to tread carefully, observing, listening and meeting with the right people.
We then understood that we could only realistically focus on a few key areas, and come back to the school with three concrete ideas that could be supported immediately and continue over time.
Using funds to fix a broken gate, build some shade outside and clear a play area seems small, but these are actions that will make an enormous difference.
The children will now be able to grow seedlings providing them with much-needed food, they have some shoes and sliders preventing them from getting the parasitic infections in their feet from the earth, which, if left untreated, will result in their feet being deformed.
Another challenge was to support the only special needs teacher there in the nearly impossible task of keeping the class occupied whilst also bearing in mind the huge range of demands she had to deal with.
We have also raised some funds for her to have an extra pair of hands to help out, like a teaching assistant or a matron. And a weekly lunch club has been initiated so the kids can begin building much-needed relationships with each other.
Visiting the school, meeting with the children over time and playing with them are some of the most rewarding things I have ever experienced. I’ll never forget their joy and enthusiasm at our arrival.
In my 50s I no longer yearn to lie on a beach and do nothing on holiday, so this was a tremendous opportunity to share with other midlife bloomers.
Making the most of the free time
It was not all work, though. Far from it. Waking up and swimming in the warm green waters of the Indian Ocean, with only the fisherman in their hollowed-out mango tree boats for company, was idyllic.
Afternoons spent reading, or strolling along the beautiful sandy Msambweni beach ensured we remained relaxed and happy at all times. Monkeys in the trees provided entertainment, too.
Sometimes, we took a small boat out with a local fisherman and conservationist by the name of Captain Ali, and enjoyed a morning snorkelling on the nearby reef. With Jacquie’s connections, we made sure we bought locally-made trinkets to take home from the sellers she has known for years. We knew we were helping at least a few local families.
We also enjoyed a day in the historic city of Mombasa, visiting the historical streets, markets and the fortress.
Diani Beach is a 30-minute drive away where we had a delicious lunch and swam in the turquoise waters. It’s more touristy here, so the boutiques were more expensive as the items were of a higher quality. There are restaurants, shops, banks and supermarkets in Diani, which is lovely, but in the end, our hearts were won by the simple unspoilt beauty of Msambweni, with our own personal monkey troop and resident hornbills.
The takeaway points
Volunteering abroad has inspired me to make better choices every day because I saw firsthand how even the smallest actions can create a ripple of change that makes the world a better place.
I have to say that even though I had to consider pacing myself as sometimes these days were long and tiring, I was still enriched by this most amazing and fulfilling experience, getting to know each other, meeting the delightful children of Milalani school and exploring the local area.
We all hope I can continue to support Jacquie in her endeavours to improve the lives of the people in this small, friendly, unspoilt fishing community.