Eta Thomson has lived a life less ordinary volunteering across the world. Now she plans to tackle some home-based challenges
At the ripe old age of 64, I’m retiring from a lifetime of volunteering.
Sounds strange but I’ve spent my life living abroad, in every continent in the world, volunteering and working for charities, NGOs and community projects.
However, when I say I’m retiring I’m not retiring from home-based volunteering. I’ll look for something new. But my wanderlust is over. And my feet are firmly planted in my home town of Dundee where my sister and brother still live.
I’m used to working in regimes where criticism of any kind either gets you deported, imprisoned or, as the Argentinians say, disappeared
I was a very young, green behind the ears 17 year old when I first volunteered to teach English to street children in Rio, Brazil. Armed with good grades from school and an innocent naivety, I thought I was going to change the world. But the poverty and the conditions in the city’s favelas emotionally floored me, so much so within three months I was pleading for a transfer.
Luckily I didn’t get it granted and went on to stay in the country for four further years before moving onto Paraguay, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Argentina working on projects or helping set them up.
After six years working with NGOs I moved on to setting up my own charity, Street Work, because not enough was being down to help orphaned and abandoned kids in South America - particularly in Argentina where I was at the time.
My philosophy has always been to establish a support network, get good people involved, then when I’m happy I move on to another project, wherever that may be.
Street Work proved to be a great success, despite lots of problems getting it off the ground. In Scotland charities air their grievances quite readily and constantly criticise the government which is the natural democratic process. But part of me recoils when I hear this, largely because I’m used to working in regimes where criticism of any kind either gets you deported, imprisoned or, as the Argentinians say, disappeared.
South America was where I spent my formative volunteering years but my most memorable have been in Europe. I’ve worked in Naples, Lisbon, Albania and Poland to name but a few, setting up Street Work projects to support children.
It’s incredible how much poverty is on our own doorstep. When I first arrived in Lisbon I expected a beautiful city full of history but I got something very different. Back in the early 1970s the people were truly struggling and the disparity between rich and poor was very marked. It’s got better but it Portugal is still one of the poorest countries in the west – something not a lot of people realise.
My last port of call was New Orleans where I’ve been working with USAid, the national organisation supporting failing communities. Despite being the richest country in the world, the conditions in some parts of America are every bit as bad as those I faced as a naïve 17 year old in the favelas.
That’s not to say it’s all been hardship. When I look back I’m grateful for having an amazing life, the chance to meet amazing people and the ability to create a better life for a few folk too. At times it’s been difficult but I’ve loved it.
All told, I’ve never seen myself as lucky. I say to everyone if you want to make a change to people’s lives, do it. I did it from nothing. What's stopping others doing the same?