Reinvent Yourself: Volunteer Overseas in Retirement

Humanitarian medicine
BSIP/UIG via Getty ImagesVolunteering can help you meet new people and integrate with the local community.
By Kathleen Peddicord

One great way to begin to assimilate into your new community, when and wherever you decide to relaunch your life in retirement overseas, is to volunteer.

No matter where you land, there will be organizations, big and small, international and local, in need of a helping hand. Some programs may offer reimbursement, while others may charge a volunteer fee. But volunteering isn't about the money. This is about meeting new people in your new home, giving something back to the community that has welcomed you and creating an opportunity for you to practice the new language you may be struggling to learn.

In fact, volunteer opportunities could be a driving agenda. You could pick where you would like to reinvent your life overseas by identifying a particularly appealing volunteer opportunity somewhere and following it.

Some volunteer opportunities require little to no skill, while other groups seek professional volunteers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers positions to retirees interested in using their professional skills in a job overseas. Say you've worked at a chemical company all your life. Through the CDC, you could volunteer your skills in a country that needs assistance in that area.

Volunteering can also be a chance to develop a new skill. has positions in Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru and Nicaragua that offer a chance for volunteers to teach while they learn and study Spanish.

Most volunteer positions are offered through sponsoring companies, typically non-governmental or religious organizations. In Chiang Mai, Thailand, Helping Hands, which provides support to the Thai hill tribes, Huen Nam Jai, which assists street children, and Vieng Ping, an orphanage and nursing home, are always in the market for new volunteers, as is Granada Street Kids, with programs for street kids in this Nicaraguan colonial city.

Depending on the organization and the program, you usually must commit to anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. Often the longer you sign on for, the more interesting the work you are given.

Since 2004, the Fundacion Bolivar has been helping foreigners, both resident and visiting the country, to share their time, talents and experience with people in Ecuador who can benefit. The non-profit group is active in Quito, Cuenca, the jungle, the Galapagos and on the coast. Their efforts are focused on education and environmental conservation.

The programs are highly customizable. You can volunteer on your own, with your family or with a group of friends. You could organize a two-week program to include your children or grandchildren over one of their school breaks. Some programs include home stays with indigenous families in the north of the country where you could spend a couple of weeks helping them to manage their farms or other activities related to generating a livelihood.

Or you could volunteer as a teacher's aid or even a teacher in a village school. It's not necessary that you have experience or any special qualifications. It's difficult for these remote schools to find teachers, and foreign retirees are very welcome to teach primary-age children.

The Fundacion Bolivar offers 24/7 support for its volunteers. If you're coming to Ecuador specifically to participate in a Fundacion Bolivar program, you'll be met at the airport and delivered to accommodation for your getting acquainted and language study transition period.

Here are other ideas to get your imagination working. You could:
  • Join a marine mammal monitoring program in Mexico.
  • Work on marine life conservation in the Seychelles.
  • Teach terrestrial wildlife preservation in Kenya.
  • Join a wildlife conservation effort in the Ecuadorian Amazon or Costa Rica.
  • Assist tutoring or mentoring teens in other countries.
  • Assist at daycare centers to provide academic and emotional support to children.
Or you could keep your volunteer work search low-key and very local and ask around when you arrive in your new home. In Panama City, where I've been living for the past six years, I've become involved with the Fatima Parish in a barrio known as San Felipe. This long-established Catholic parish operates an orphanage, daycare and before- and after-school programs intended to help keep the local kids off the streets. They're always looking for hands to help.

A friend, a retiree with a long career in the music industry, is volunteering in local Panama public schools, teaching the kids to play musical instruments he imported to the country with him.

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group.

7 Best Places to Retire Worldwide If You're OK Going Full Expat
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Reinvent Yourself: Volunteer Overseas in Retirement

Medellin has a notorious reputation among Americans who know it mostly for its drug-laden past, but that hasn't prevented a huge expat population from springing up within city limits. Medellin is an incredibly walkable city, and its El Poblado district has Japanese, French, seafood and Italian restaurants within a block of each other.

Its health care system ranks near the top this list, while the cost of everything from housing to entertainment are a great fit for a fixed income. The average rental on a one-bedroom apartment in the center of the city is $650, while the average cost of buying a place is $1,050 per square meter. A taxi will get you anywhere in town for $2.50, while buses and trains can be found for much less. Plus, with the average high temperature topping out at 73 degrees, the average low coming in at 54 and a couple of rainy seasons in spring and fall, it's cool and comfortable.

Four seasons, lots of English speakers, all the Western amenities, entertainment and dining options that couples honeymoon here for ... that socialist universal health care that folks back home kept wailing about. Is there anything Pau doesn't have going for it?

Well, just consider the fact that you still have to pay for it all. The average cost of living here comes in at little more than $1,900 a month. That's not terrible by western standards, but it's more than the $1,530 you'd pay in Medellin. A whole lot of that cost comes from the nearly $1,300-a-month average cost of an apartment, which is roughly double what you'd pay in Colombia. Pau is still one of the most affordable places to live in France and is one of only two European locations on our list. That said, on a global scale it isn't exactly cheap.

It's a bit rainy and the average high temperature is in the 90s, but you're on an island in the Pacific living in one of the cheapest cities an expat can ask for.

Located along a sheltered coast on the island of Negros, Dumaguete avoids many of the typhoons, floods, landslides and tsunamis that plague other areas of the Philippines. The cost of living there comes out to roughly $920 a month, making it one of the cheapest places to live on this list. The real estate values help out quite a bit, as even prime downtown apartments can be had for $350 a month, while real estate goes for roughly $1,200 per square meter.

For that, you live in a beachfront, tropical climate with excellent health care, lots of activities and one of the best residency programs in the world. If you're there, have roughly $800 a month in income and are over 50 years old, you can live there with no required residency period and with a bunch of discounts as a result of residency.

The good news is that you can live really well here on $920 a month. The bad news? You're doing it in a city where the average high temperature is 99 degrees year-round and the average humidity sits at 85 percent.

Oh, and the nearby farmers burn their fields at the end of harvest season, making the air in town practically unbreathable.

That said, hillside Chiang Mai offers a lot for the money. An apartment downtown goes for a ridiculously low $400 a month, while homes can be bought for $1,100 per square meter. The high-quality health care and health-related services are huge bonuses, as are Western amenities and jobs for foreign residents. Many Westerners are employed in Chiang Mai in language schools, universities, medical facilities and tourist-related industries.

The country's Malaysia My Second Home retirement benefits program for all foreigners is a great draw, but so is the quality Internet access, cellphone coverage and roads.

If you can prove $3,125 in monthly income and make an investment in a local CD, you're going to be living on the cheap for the foreseeable future. The average monthly cost of living comes out to $1,070, with apartments renting for just $500 and homes selling for $1,700 a square meter.

George Town's population of 740,000 isn't exactly tiny, but it's small enough so that it's easy to make friends and meet people in a city where English is spoken just about everywhere. The health care is outstanding, the infrastructure is just about Western and the population of expats is around 40,000 -- a city unto itself.

Ecuador is Florida or Arizona for the expat community.

The country's retirement benefits package includes 50% off transportation, utility bills, international round-trip flights originating in Ecuador and tickets for cultural and sporting events. Foreigners can also enroll in the Ecuador Social Security medical program for $57 a month. Those over 65 also pay lower income tax. Oh, and there's no required minimum stay for residency.

At $1,010 in average monthly costs, Cuenca is also insanely cheap. Apartments downtown rent for $300 a month, with homes selling for $1,100 a square foot. Your neighbor is also likely to have a few stories to swap, as there are roughly 4,000 to 5,000 North American expats living in this small city. There are lots of restaurants and nightlife and just enough English spoken to ease the transition.

This Old World region on the Atlantic Ocean, home to more than 100,000 resident expat retirees, medieval towns, fishing villages, open-air markets, local wine and some of Europe's best sandy beaches. Dotted with cobblestoned streets and whitewashed houses with lace-patterned chimneys, surrounded everywhere by fig, olive, almond, and carob trees, it's a European dream location.

It has four seasons, including one of Europe's most sought-after summers, nearly no crime, strong infrastructure and universal, international-standard health care. That said, it isn't exactly overrun with English speakers, so you may want to brush up on some Portuguese before hunting for homes here. Still, with 42 golf courses in less than 100 miles and a cost of living that averages out to between $1,500 and $2,000 a month -- including rent at around $615 a month -- there's a whole lot of motivation to learn the language and stick around a while.

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