Pensioners show increasing interest in volunteer work abroad
By Suvi Turtiainen
Demand is high for experienced volunteers. The growing interest shown by pensioners for international volunteer programmes has been noticed by KVT, a Finnish international voluntary work camp organisation.
“It would seem that there would be somewhat more pensioner applicants in recent years”, says the organisation’s secretary Salla Kuuluvainen.
Kuuluvainen says that retired men are especially interested in short construction projects in places such as nature park, while women are more interested in social work. Applicants for KVT programmes include those with a blue collar background, as well as those with an academic career behind them.
“One 70-year-old teacher went to work at a nature park in Murmansk, and he was very satisfied”, Kuuluvainen says.
Some organisations only take young volunteers, who comprise a majority of international volunteer workers. In addition to KVT, there is the Etvo volunteer programme organised by the Service Centre for Development Cooperation (KEPA), which sometimes sends people over 60 years of age to different parts of the world. There is demand for people of all ages.
“In many Asian and African cultures there is an appreciation for the experience and wisdom brought on by age – perhaps even more than in Finland”, says Etvo coordinator Anni Vihriälä.
Many of the volunteers are assigned tasks in which they have professional experience from their working careers. For instance, a pensioner with a background in education can assist in school administration while abroad.
Requirements for international volunteer work include reasonably good physical condition and a degree of linguistic skills. Housing conditions are often quite Spartan.
The European Union also supports the international activities of people above the age of 50. The EU-financed Grundtvig programme sends Finnish senior volunteers to other EU countries, and brings other EU volunteers to Finland.
The oldest participant from Finland so far was 73 years old, but the majority of volunteers were recently retired.
“We really have many people who are in good condition, who are no longer working, but who have plenty of energy and much to contribute”, says Eija Wilén, the coordinator of Grundtvig in Finland.
Leena Pulkkinen in Thailand: “Without volunteer work I would be a bedridden patient”
“If I were not doing volunteer work in Thailand I would be a bedridden patient by now. That is the feeling that I have.
I went with my husband Raimo to Pattaya in Thailand for the first time 12 years ago on a holiday trip. With each successive year we stayed there longer, and last winter we were there for seven months.
We got to know Finnish missionary workers and we visited a slum with them. I immediately got the feeling that I must do something. When I saw the poverty, misery, and the problems caused by alcohol and drugs the question arose why anybody should live like this.
In Finland we started raising money from our friends and acquaintances and we bought a washing machine, a refrigerator and a freezer for the orphanage in the slum. A local pastor helps us make the right choices.
In the slum I am already known as Grandmother Pulkkinen. In Finland I have four children and ten grandchildren. I don’t really speak any foreign languages, but the Savo dialect has served me well.
We plan to continue to work in Thailand for another five years. I don’t know myself how I will manage. I have an artificial joint in one knee, and my back and neck are propped up with iron. Fourteen years ago I had a heart bypass operation. In Thailand I go into the swimming pool with with a water jogging belt for an hour at a time every morning, and the food here is healthy.
In the summertime we work in Finland – I work with old people and my husband is in the transport business. We get by in the winter in Thailand mostly on the money we make in the summer. If I didn’t spend winter in Thailand I wouldn’t have the strength to work in Finland either.”
Kuopio resident Leena Pulkkinen, 69, is a retired nurse who does aid work at an orphanage in a slum in Pattaya, Thailand.
Saara Vellacott in China “I am happy to work, as I have kept my health”
“My friends were amazed. ‘You are going to China?’ I couldn’t have imagined working in China, but the possibility which was mentioned by another teacher came back to my mind when a six-year stint as a substitute teacher ended in Viitasaari.
I had done plenty of substitute teaching. Sometimes the jobs were just one day in one place and a half day somewhere else. The constant switching from one school to another was getting to be strenuous.
I went to teach ‘spoken English’ in China, because here I can teach the same pupils through the whole school year. At a ripe old age I was interested in facing new challenges.
The first time that I left was in September 2008 to Huizhou in Guangxi Province. The trip was from the south to the north of China. I spent another semester in Hunan, and now I am teaching future English teachers in Lanzhou in Gansu Province.
I know enough Chinese to order in a restaurant, and to ask in stores what goods cost. My apartment is on the campus of the school where I work. It is like living in a family. There are grandparents, and there are children playing in the yard.
In have four children and three grandchildren of my own. I miss them very much, for which reason I sometimes take a break between teaching jobs in China. I am paid for my teaching by the Finnish Missionary Society, as well as international organisations and the school. I get by with that.
I came to Finland in July. After the holidays we will see if there is demand for a teacher. I would be happy to work some more, as I have been quite healthy.”
Teacher Saara Vellacott, 64, teaches English to Chinese education students in Gansu Province.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 6.8.2012
SUVI TURTIAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat