Sharing a dorm with a crowd of young volunteers – no thankyou!

By Sallie Grayson. Filed in articles by people and places  |  
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Here’s some advice I wrote recently for Grown Ups who want to volunteer and would rather not spend their time with a crowd of young gap students – the article appeared in Savista Magazine – a great resource for we over 50’s.

“I want to volunteer, but really don’t want to spend my time with lots of gap year kids – I’ve just got mine off my hands!”

Volunteer travel has traditionally been seen as the domain of the young – a great way to improve the CV, to have fun, to ‘grow up’. This is no longer true – more and more over 50s want to volunteer overseas, but don’t particularly want the GAP experience!

“I want to volunteer, but really don’ t want to spend my time with lots of gap year kids – I’ve just got mine off my hands!”

You’re already ‘grown up’ – and your CV is as long as the list of reasons why you don’t want to spend your precious time with someone else’s youngsters. And your idea of fun is certainly not sharing a dorm with half a dozen teenagers who have just left home for the first time.

There are now plenty of volunteer opportunities advertised as being appropriate for career breakers and retirees.

But watch out! This may just be ‘marketing speak’ – and disguise the fact that the programme is, and was originally, aimed at ‘gappers’. How can you find out if the volunteer programme you’re looking at ‘does what it says on the tin’?

  • Don’t rely on age group guidelines where you can choose over 50 or retirement categories. It’s probably just a tick box and isn’t necessarily helpful. I know from experience that on many sites where we promote our programmes we could tick GAP, career break and retirement for the same project.
  • Watch out for repeated use of marketing phrases that attract young people – you know the kind of thing: awesome, adventure, try your hand at, broaden your horizons, have the time of your life, etc.
  • Watch out for dorm style sleeping arrangements and volunteer houses
  • Does the project specify the need for skills and/or experience? If not, you’re more likely to encounter young GAP volunteers.
  • Check out the number of working hours expected – GAP opportunities often expect only four hours a day, or less.
  • Ask straight out – will there be young volunteers there and if so, how many?
  • Ask if there will be volunteers there from more than one organisation? And if so, will you be told?
  • Are there set departure dates and minimum volunteer numbers? And if so, how many?
  • And, importantly, can you talk with some previous over 50s volunteers?
Peter with Mel, another volunteer

Peter with Mel, another volunteer

One of the first questions we’re asked by our over 50s applicants: “Will there be other volunteers there and if so what age are they?”

Because of our close relationships with the projects, we can tailor-make each placement and advise volunteers about  their own preferences. In some cases, a combination of 20-somethings and 50-somethings works really well – a teaching student and experienced teacher for example – where their skills and abilities are complementary, and they know well in advance who they will be working with because we will have introduced them to each other so that they can at least chat on the phone or by email.

“In my late 60’s I volunteered in Nepal – and worked with a wonderful young co volunteer in her early 20s. Working together was such a pleasure – we’re still in touch  and hoping to volunteer together later this year – but not sure I would have liked  to be with a group of younguns” – Peter

I can’t speak for how other volunteer organisations operate – but by asking clever questions, you will be able to make informed decisions!

A personal warning! On my first volunteer experience when I was in my 40’s, it didn’t even cross my mind to find out the ages of any other volunteers who may be there working on other projects nearby. I ended up being surrogate parent, agony aunt, arbiter, nurse and counselor – homesickness, sulks, crushes, euphoria, deep depressions, alcoholic dehydration, medical emergency. I got em all – not what I’d signed up for!

So, the bottom line? Make your own preferences clear from the outset. You may be perfectly happy to live and work with a few youngsters – it may be that you absolutely, definitely won’t!  If the organisation you are talking to can’t provide you with the answers – BEWARE!

You’ll be spending your own money to volunteer, so your preferences are important.

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