70-something and making a difference with "voluntourism"

5 min read

Even in your 70s, it’s never too late to make a difference. Just ask Sue Davis. As a sprightly, 70-something volunteer with Habitat For Humanity, she’s built houses in South-East Asia - twice.

“In 2013, I travelled to Thailand and we built a whole village, to celebrate the king’s 83rd birthday. That was 83 houses and a community centre,” Sue recalls.

Laying bricks and getting muddy in the tropical heat turned out to be such fun Sue leapt into another project in January 2015. This time, Nepal caught her imagination. “I was planning on going overseas, anyway, and it was on my list,” she says. “I saw the project and wanted to go.”

So, she rounded up her daughter, her daughter’s partner, and three friends. The adventurous six jumped on a plane from their hometown of Sydney to Kathmandu, before boarding another to Biratnagar, a city in the nation’s east. Their job? To join six other Australians and finish off a partly built home in a nearby village ­- within a week.

“The house was for a woman who had moved there from another village,” Sue says. “Her husband had died and, culturally, she was expected to have another, but didn’t. She was an outcast. She became homeless, so, her husband’s sister suggested she move to their village.”

Shoulder-to-shoulder with this woman and her daughter, Sue and her friends started working. “When we arrived, the house only had some brick foundations and part of the walls, and that was it,” she says. “We did everything that needed to be done.”

That included cutting and weaving bamboo strips to extend the walls, slapping on render with their bare hands and pouring rubble into the floor, before crunching it into place with their feet. Hours off were spent playing cricket with local children and getting to know villagers.

“Just travelling, you never see anything like that,” Sue says. “I would never have had the opportunity to have experienced village life in that way. It was so far out of the city… The women really warmed to us and, on the last day, held a ceremony. They dressed us in traditional clothes, gave us leis and all contributed food to a big lunch. It was beautiful.”

In addition, Sue developed strong bonds with her fellow volunteers, who, despite coming from such different backgrounds, had the same motivations and philosophy.

Habitat for Humanity’s programmes vary in cost, depending on their location and length. Sue’s was around $4,000 per person, expenses and airfares included. But participants can fundraise up to one-third of their costs. So, with “great support” from Habitat, Sue organised a fun afternoon, with a silent auction, featuring items donated from friends’ cupboards and performances by a couple of choirs in which she sings.

“I’d recommend volunteering to anybody,” she adds. “There are so many experiences for people to have when they’ve retired. People are much the same all over the world. It’s just a matter of finding some way of meeting each other.”

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In the late 1960s Phil Chegwidden was a teenager fully absorbed in the hippy culture sweeping the globe. Now, at 64, he should be getting ready to retire but instead has embarked on a new career - with a mobile speakeasy bar.
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