Volunteering abroad: two women who fulfilled lifelong ambitions to work overseas

Alison Criado-Perez and Yvonne Lee discovered the joy of volunteering overseas in their fifties. One nursed patients in a war zone and one has helped to bring education to children in Nepal


Alison Criado-Perez, a trained nurse and mother of three, harboured a life-long desire to work abroad as an aid worker. But it wasn’t until she went through a divorce in her mid-fifties that she decided to pursue that dream.

“I was really knocked off my footing when I divorced,” she says. “I was very depressed and it was a big shock to my system after 20 or so years of married life.

“I’d always thought about helping overseas and after the divorce it kept coming back in my mind. I wasn’t sure I’d have the guts to do it, but I believe that you only regret the things you don’t do. I wanted to put myself out there.”

So she studies for a tropical nursing diploma and then applied to become an aid worker for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Weeks later she received a call asking if she could travel to the Central African Republic (CAR) to help run a mobile clinic providing treatment for people in the bush. “I had to look it up on a map,” she says.

Alison’s story: volunteering in a war zone

“It was in a conflict zone, but I didn’t hesitate for one second. Once there, in spite of being around armed militia, sleeping on a floor and being way out of my experience, I was so overwhelmingly happy.”

Ali at a clinic in Nigeria. Photo by MSF/Ali Criado Perez
Alison at a clinic in Nigeria. Photo by MSF/Ali Criado-Perez

Since the mission to the CAR in 2007, Alison has completed 12 trips for MSF, working in far-flung places such as Uganda, Colombia and Sierra Leone.

Some of the trips are highly risky. Once, travelling with other workers on a canoe boat in Colombia, a guerrilla group stopped them. “We never had armed protection,” she says. “All we had was the MSF flag. We had to talk our way out of it.”

When she was based in CAR, she regularly heard the sound of gunshots while she treated people.

Treating Ebola in Sierrra Leone

One of her most harrowing experiences was her most recent mission to Sierra Leone, where she treated patients infected with Ebola.

“That was quite a traumatic experience. It’s a horrible disease and for some there’s no possible treatment.

“When you’re certain you can’t save a life, you try to give the person a more dignified death. Sometimes people died on their own. It was very upsetting.”

Yvonne’s story: educating children in Nepal

Two years ago, Yvonne Lee took early retirement from her job to volunteer in Nepal. She had been inspired by a trip to Rwanda to visit her son, who was volunteering there.

Then, aged 59, she worked as an education management consultant in Nepal’s mid-hills district of Baglung in August 2013 to March 2014, organised through international development organisation VSO.

“The programme was about bringing quality education to marginalised children which the hill children definitely were,” says Lee. “Some of them were incredibly poor, very thin and had no shoes to wear on the rugged terrain.”

Yvonne also took on a second role of training older girls to mentor younger girls who needed support to stay in education.

Yvonne’s proudest achievement of her trip to Nepal was contributing to a school improvement handbook that is now being used in many other districts by VSO volunteers as the blueprint for improving schools.

“On a personal level, I’m proud that of the wonderful relationships I forged. I have a beautiful Nepali ‘daughter’, a young married girl who is finding life tough, who I am supporting in every way that I can.”

The challenge of volunteering abroad

Volunteering in a developing country wasn’t without its challenges. “Learning and using the Nepali language was a tough call, and I had been quite a good linguist back in the day,” says Yvonne.

“Sometimes keeping connected with my husband, elderly mother and family was hard if connectivity went down, especially with scheduled power cuts in Kathmandu.

“It was testing, but in Nepal I was more fortunate than I expected when I look back to my son’s experience in Rwanda.”

The benefits of volunteering abroad

What advice does Yvonne have for mature people who are considering volunteering abroad?

“Don’t hesitate,” she says, straight away. “It gives you a new perspective and lease of life. I wish I had done it earlier so that I could volunteer over and over again.

“It’s wonderful to immerse yourself in another culture and to find a new way of living and being.

“To not be a tourist looking in but getting involved in life and hopefully making a difference is fantastic. I will find it difficult to be a tourist ever again.”

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