Good-Deed Do­ers

How to be­come a hu­man­i­tar­ian

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Lisa Ben­dall

WHEN NANCY SEMKIN be­gan plan­ning her early re­tire­ment from the cor­po­rate sec­tor in 2009, she knew the next phase of her life was go­ing to look markedly dif­fer­ent. Semkin, who lives in Toronto, had en­joyed a long, ful­fill­ing ca­reer as a di­rec­tor of lead­er­ship de­vel­op­ment in hu­man re­sources at RBC.

“I have no re­grets,” says Semkin. “But there was a fur­ther need I knew was not be­ing met.”

For years, Semkin had pic­tured her­self im­mersed in hu­man­i­tar­ian work. With fam­ily obli­ga­tions and bills to pay, how­ever, the cir­cum­stances were never right. As she got older, that changed. Plus, “I had come to the time in my life when I wanted to take on a dif­fer­ent kind of chal­lenge,” Semkin says. “I’d had the dream to do hu­man­i­tar­ian work for a long time and felt com­pelled to act when the cir­cum­stances were fi­nally right.”

Semkin com­pleted some col­lege cour­ses in in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment and be­gan search­ing for a suit­able fit. “I knew I had trans­fer­able skills,” she says. At a re­cruit­ing night hosted by Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders/ Médecins Sans Fron­tières (MSF) Canada, she learned the ex­tent to which or­ga­ni­za­tions like this one need non-med­i­cal peo­ple – in­clud­ing lo­gis­ti­cians, fi­nan­cial ex­perts and, hap­pily, hu­man re­sources spe­cial­ists.

To date, Semkin, now 67, has been on in­ter­na­tional staff de­vel­op­ment mis­sions for MSF in a range of coun­tries that in­clude South Africa, Mozam­bique, South Su­dan, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. “I’ve made con­nec­tions with the most beau­ti­ful peo­ple from all over the world,” she says. What brings her joy? “Their de­sire and ea­ger­ness to learn, and my hav­ing the skills to be able to help with that learn­ing.”

What pulls peo­ple to­ward hu­man­i­tar­ian work in the sec­ond half of life? Af­ter all, work­ing in cri­sis sit­u­a­tions, of­ten un­der ex­treme con­di­tions, is no plea­sure cruise. Cer­tainly there’s acute need, whether it’s in refugee camps, war-torn vil­lages or dis­as­ter ar­eas abroad, or in com­mu­ni­ties stricken with poverty or devastated by for­est fires here at home. But the days are long and ex­haust­ing and don’t al­ways in­clude run­ning water and elec­tric­ity, let alone air-con­di­tion­ing or a hot bath.

Yet a re­mark­able amount of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid is de­liv­ered by older peo­ple. Many of them, like Semkin, never per­formed this kind of work un­til their 50s or 60s. At MSF, the av­er­age age of an in­ter­na­tional aid worker is 41, and it’s not un­usual for work­ers to be se­niors. “That might sur­prise peo­ple,” says Owen Camp­bell, MSF Canada’s field hu­man re­sources man­ager. “We don’t have any top age limit. We look for peo­ple who have re­cent, rel­e­vant work ex­pe­ri­ence, and of course, if some­one has a life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence, that’s taken into con­sid­er­a­tion.”

Camp­bell notes that older peo­ple tend to have fewer com­pet­ing com­mit­ments and more time to give. They’re re­tired or semi-re­tired, their fam­i­lies are grown, and their el­derly par­ents have long since passed away. Sta­tis­tics Canada re­ports that se­niors who vol­un­teer for char­i­ta­ble causes give much more time than any other age group; in fact, they con­trib­ute nearly twice as many hours as adults un­der 35.

These men and women may be bet­ter po­si­tioned fi­nan­cially as well, es­pe­cially if they’ve risen in their careers and are no longer pay­ing off their house or their kids’ univer­sity fees. “I had a pen­sion, and my mort­gage was done, so I didn’t have to worry about look­ing for work that paid the bills,” Semkin says. Al­though she, like other MSF work­ers, re­ceives a monthly stipend (not all hu­man­i­tar­ian work is vol­un­teer work), it cer­tainly doesn’t com­pare to a cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive’s salary.

But the mo­ti­va­tion to do hand­son hu­man­i­tar­ian work, es­pe­cially when there are many other, eas­ier op­tions for mak­ing a char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety, of­ten goes be­yond prag­matic mat­ters of spare time and fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity. Ger­man-born Amer­i­can psy­cho­an­a­lyst Erik Erik­son coined the term “gen­er­a­tiv­ity” to de­scribe

“These ‘se­nior su­per­pow­ers’ can be in high de­mand at aid agen­cies”

the wish to con­trib­ute as a legacy for younger gen­er­a­tions.

“I think this de­sire to give back comes from a ba­sic sense of car­ing for peo­ple in a much deeper and richer way the older you get, and trea­sur­ing life much more,” says Toronto speaker and colum­nist Ju­lia Moulden, au­thor of three books about emerg­ing trends, in­clud­ing Ripe: Rich, Re­ward­ing Work Af­ter 50. “It to­tally makes sense to me that older peo­ple want to do more of this.”

“When you’re help­ing out some­body, it’s sort of pay­ing it for­ward,” re­marks Bob Fisher of Fred­er­ic­ton, N.B. “There have been peo­ple who have helped you in the past, so you just pass it along.” Fisher, 71, vol­un­teers with his local branch of Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity Canada. He’s helped to con­struct multiple homes for fam­i­lies in need in the Fred­er­ic­ton area. He’s also been on an over­seas build in Zam­bia. Last year, his team or­ga­nized a build with mem­bers of New Brunswick’s To­bique First Na­tion. “It makes me feel good,” he says sim­ply.

Do­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian work isn’t a fit for ev­ery­body, and ex­perts stress that any­one con­sid­er­ing it should know what they’re get­ting them­selves into. Speak with other field work­ers, es­pe­cially those close to your age, ex­plore agency web­sites and read first-per­son ac­counts of what’s in­volved. “We get ex­cited about do­ing things, but there are real world im­pli­ca­tions,” Moulden says. The work might come with harsh con­di­tions or long weeks away from home. “What’s your health like? Have you got de­pen­dents? You need to con­sider all of that.”

For many peo­ple, too, en­ergy lev­els flag with age. “The work­ing hours are very long, and of­ten for six days a week,” says Semkin. “The needs and the pace of the work are re­lent­less.” She copes by ac­cept­ing shorter mis­sions – four months is her max­i­mum. As for Fisher, he’s con­vinced that his many hours of in­stalling dry­wall, in­su­la­tion, ceil­ing tile and floor­ing are good for his health. “I prob­a­bly get more ex­er­cise work­ing with Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity than I’d get on my own. It keeps both my mind and my body ac­tive.” A re­tired re­search sci­en­tist who worked for the Cana­dian For­est Ser­vice, Fisher also finds it sat­is­fy­ing to solve lo­gis­ti­cal prob­lems on the build­ing site.

That’s some­thing else unique to older hu­man­i­tar­ian work­ers: ex­ec­u­tive-level skills that have been finely honed over many years. These “se­nior su­per­pow­ers” can be in high de­mand at aid agen­cies. “A lot of our in­ter­na­tional field work­ers are in a co­or­di­nat­ing role,” says Camp­bell. “Peo­ple with prior man­age­ment ex­pe­ri­ence tend to be bet­ter pre­pared, which cor­re­lates with peo­ple who have had longer careers with higher lev­els of re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

David Mead­ows, 69, agrees. “Over the years, you gain an abil­ity to fore­see and plan things,” he says. While Mead­ows was still work­ing as a lawyer in Hal­i­fax, he vol­un­teered for local causes such as the com­mu­nity the­atre and his school alumni as­so­ci­a­tion. But his yearn­ing to pro­vide hu­man­i­tar­ian aid abroad be­came stronger as he neared the end of his ca­reer in 2008. A cou­ple months af­ter re­tire­ment, Mead­ows was in El Sal­vador, help­ing to con­struct houses. Af­ter par­tic­i­pat­ing in sev­eral Habi­tat Global Vil­lage trips in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, he now leads trips. “Per­haps if I were younger, I would not have had the ex­pe­ri­ence for the plan­ning and or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

Re­gard­less of age, the re­wards of do­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian work can be deeply af­fect­ing. “You get to know the peo­ple. You re­ally see the im­pact of what you’ve done,” says Mead­ows.

As for Semkin, she swears the ex­pe­ri­ence has made her a bet­ter per­son. “I think a lot of peo­ple would say I’m much kinder now – less judg­men­tal, more thought­ful and more grate­ful,” she says. “It has been lifechang­ing for me.”

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