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Don't just visit — volunteer

Students gather around Lynn Lotkowictz for a photo on her last day of class at Morfosi English School in Gazi, Crete. She plans to return.

Courtesy of Lynn Lotkowictz

Students gather around Lynn Lotkowictz for a photo on her last day of class at Morfosi English School in Gazi, Crete. She plans to return.

A few years ago, I realized it was time to create a meaningful retirement plan. My rewarding 30-plus-year career in sales and management was winding down. My pension was set, so I had flexibility.

But what shape would retirement take?

I don't crochet or play golf or bridge, nor do I enjoy any of those interests my friends do. I adore my grandson and family, but they are 1,200 miles away, so a weekend four or five times a year is the best I can do.

Travel, the outdoors, healthy endeavors and children are my passions, so I started to work on a blueprint for the next phase of life. The goal was for it be meaningful and rewarding.

I surfed the internet looking for travel ideas, cost-effective options and different ways that volunteering would be mutually beneficial with my interests, skills and passions.

A good friend bought me a book on volunteer travel. In my free time I read, analyzed and sifted through information on websites and in books. I also talked with colleagues and friends.

I narrowed down potential volunteer organizations to those that both had a presence in places I'd like and satisfied my interest in helping young people. I called each group, asked lots of questions and, most important, asked for the email addresses of people who had traveled with them. That, I thought, would be the best way to learn the pluses and minuses of a program.

I settled on Global Volunteers, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization based in St. Paul, Minn.

In 2013, I made my first trip with Global Volunteers, to the Greek island of Crete. It was wonderful. I worked with the Morfosi English School, helping students practice conversational English. The location is breathtaking. The students are energetic and genuinely interested in learning. There was ample free time to enjoy museums, archaeological sites and traditional dining. I worked with a team of volunteers who have similar goals and interests, so I also made friends.

Global Volunteers offers short-term service programs in more than a dozen counties as well as the United States. Fees for the one- to three-week programs run $1,045 to $3,595 plus airfare, and accommodations vary. The hotel we used in Crete had very basic rooms and could have used some updates, but hotel staff and management were very warm and welcoming. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were included in the program. The meals were traditional, and dinner felt like family time.

After I returned from a second Global Volunteers trip to Crete, in 2015, I was so enthusiastic that I decided to look into enhancing my English-teaching skills. I researched courses. There are online Teaching English as a Foreign Language courses, and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg offers a four-week program through Via Lingua that qualifies participants to teach English as a second language in certain countries.

I also found a local, state-funded public school program at Tomlinson Adult Learning Center in St. Petersburg whose goal is to teach immigrants basic English skills to function in the United States. I emailed the director and asked to sit in on a class for an hour or two. It was an eye-opening experience. Students were from the Congo, Haiti, Ukraine, Egypt, Cuba, Colombia. They entered the country under different circumstances, yet they all wanted to be here and were thrilled at the prospect of a new life here. I was elated to find a progressive program like this.

My third Global Volunteers trip to Crete was in October, and it was my best experience to date. After three trips to the same island, I am now familiar enough with the local bus service to comfortably get around. I also know the best spots for an espresso, spanakopita and a cool drink beachside.

The students remember me, and their warmth is exhilarating. It's a joy to watch them mature from year to year and improve their English. When I leave, they hug me and tell me they hope to see me again. By returning to the same location, with the same program, I'm building meaningful relationships. I stay in touch with a handful of the students year-round via social media. I've also made friends with the teacher and her family and when I'm there am invited for coffee on the weekend with her friends.

I've had the opportunity to be part of another culture in a very authentic way.

As I neared retirement in December, my very generous boss wanted to throw me a party. I suggested he instead make a donation on my behalf to Global Volunteers, and he did.

I'm happy to report that my retirement plan came together better than I ever dreamed, and I feel fortunate.

In January I left the States for a new Global Volunteers service program opportunity, this time in Havana. I spent a week on various projects and worked with students on English in an evening program. It was a wonderful cultural learning experience.

Later this year, I hope to be back in Crete, at Morfosi English School. I can't wait to see the students.

Lynn Lotkowictz, who began working at Florida Trend in 1980, retired in December. She held various sales positions and for the past seven years was director of advertising, overseeing the state and national business. Contact her at llotkow@gmail.com.

To learn more

• For additional information about Global Volunteers, visit globalvolunteers.org.

• If you're specifically interested in international volunteering, over50andoverseas.com might be worth a look.

Don't just visit — volunteer 02/17/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 22, 2017 6:11pm]
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