Voluntary exits

These Irish volunteers donate their time and skills in return for enriching, stimulating experiences in the developing world

The Irish have a long history of working in the developing world. At the annual Irish Aid volunteering fair, in Dublin today, 23 organisations will be hoping to attract new recruits for overseas programmes ranging from building houses to nursing, teaching and music mentorship.

Irish Aid also hopes to encourage a more diverse range of people to volunteer for projects abroad, particularly retirees whose skills are in short supply in the developing world. We asked three people who have recently volunteered abroad about their experiences.

The retired principal
Noel Brennan, who is 62, has volunteered for a series of short-term assignments, sharing his education expertise since 1997

How did you become a volunteer? By accident. In 1997 a fellow principal, who had volunteering experience himself, heard me speaking about education for children with disabilities at a conference and encouraged me to give it a try. I applied to the Agency for Personal Service Overseas and was sent to a large black township in South Africa. I spent my summer holidays evaluating her project, speaking to the ministry for education on her behalf and giving basic training. Between 1997 and 2007 I went away every year during my summer holidays from school – to Namibia, Tajikistan, Serbia and Montenegro, and Ethiopia.


What can you offer as a volunteer? I provide training for education workers in language development, literacy, mathematics and music, as well as behaviour management, staff evaluation, record keeping, report writing and lots more.

What do you get from the experience? I find the experience very stimulating, and enriching both personally and professionally. I feel wanted and welcome and affirmed. I have learned so much about people and places, art, history, food, attitudes, traditions. When my children were growing up we couldn’t afford to travel, so I hadn’t really seen the world until I started volunteering.

Do you go alone or with others? Generally I go on my own, but I like that. I’ve always been treated well and felt safe.

What’s your next trip? I’m travelling to northern Ethiopia for the third time in January to work with the Daughters of Charity. All their funding comes from international donors, so they have to write up very detailed annual reports. My first job will be to proofread and edit the documents.

The recent graduate
Kate Doyle, who is 22, graduated from studying history at Trinity College Dublin this year. She spent 10 weeks of the summer teaching at a school in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), in India, with Suas.

Why did you become a volunteer? Volunteering was something I had always wanted to do, so I decided to make the most of my last long summer holiday, after my final college year, and apply to go to India.

How did you arrange the trip? At Christmas I went for an interview and met the organisers and past volunteers. We had three preparation weekends in the spring, with practical ideas for what to do with the children and emotional preparation for the culture shock.

What was India like? Myself and my teaching partner worked at a small community school run by one of Suas’s local partners in India. The roof was corrugated iron, and the walls were made of bamboo. There was just one room to hold 40 pupils. I was daunted by the idea of standing in front of a class, but the kids were so excited to have us there that every day was a pleasure.

What was a typical day? We rose early five days a week to walk 20 minutes to the train station for the hour’s journey to the school. The train was always packed, so it was an intense experience, with people begging or trying to sell their wares. We’d teach for four or five hours and talk with the local teachers after the kids went home. We’d arrive back exhausted to our accommodation in the evenings to have dinner as a team and prepare our lesson plans for the next day. Without a television or internet to distract us, we got to know each other really well.

What have you learned? Seeing how unequal the world is up close is something that will always stay with me.

The retired adviser
Ros McFeely, who is 65, is a retired student adviser at University College Dublin. She has been a team leader on the UCD Volunteer Overseas programme in Nicaragua and Tanzania.

Why did you volunteer? I lived in Sudan with our children for two years while my husband worked with Irish Aid. That whetted my appetite for working overseas. I became involved with UCD Volunteer Overseas when I started work in UCD, in 2003, in a fundraising capacity. I went to Nicaragua as a project leader in 2007 and 2008, and to Tanzania in 2010 and 2011.

What was your role? As a leader you are involved for the whole year. Recruiting begins in the first term, the volunteers are selected by November, project leaders are put in place and the orientation programme begins to provide country-specific information, language classes, a global-awareness project and an opportunity for the volunteers to to get to know each other.

How is the trip paid for? The volunteers raise around €2,500 each to pay for their airfare, accommodation and a contribution to the project itself, which provides funding for the rest of the year.

What can older people bring to the table? Your diplomatic skills and problem-solving skills are invaluable. When a difficulty arises older people are often more pragmatic and resourceful, because they have more life experience.

What have you learned? You get so much more out of it than you would just on a holiday. We’ve made such good friends, and have done something enriching that has brought us totally outside our comfort zone.

The volunteering fair is at the Irish Aid information centre on O’Connell Street in Dublin today, from 11am to 4pm; dci.gov.ie