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Volunteering in Retirement: "People have much more to offer than they realise"

Maeve Bracken with some of the mothers that make greeting cards through the Haitian business that she helped to get started while working as a volunteer. Photo: Viatores Christi	Retiree Maeve Bracken was volunteering in Haiti when the earthquake hit, but she says even that shocking experience couldn’t dim her affection for the Caribbean island.

When Bracken was approaching retirement after over 40 years in the civil service, she knew she wanted to volunteer but wasn’t sure what she could offer.

Speaking on the phone from Tullamore, she says: “I wasn’t a nurse or an engineer. I had many skills but they weren’t exactly what people were looking for. But I felt there was more I could do and it worked out.”

While she was looking into the possibilities, she heard about Mayo woman Gena Heraty’s work in Haiti and set her mind on helping there.

Heraty has lived in Haiti for almost 18 years now, running an orphanage and school for children, including over 30 children with special needs. These were the children she asked Bracken to work alongside, helping to run therapy classes.

And so she travelled there in 2008 with lay missionary group Viatores Christi, staying for two years, and returning three times since for shorter periods.

Bracken (64) says she was completely out of her comfort zone in the heat and the poverty, and doing this type of work. But Heraty had clearly spotted something in her.

“I used to make things a lot at home, and soon had the girls working with me making greeting-cards. The most capable of the girls would embroider squares and we made cards to sell. Visitors thought they were very authentic,” she says.

It didn’t take long before Bracken’s experience with the small foods industry through Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture told her this was a viable cottage industry.

She’d noticed mothers of children with special needs travelling in to the orphanage for therapy and meals. The women often waited all day while their child was treated.

“We sat down with a group of them, explained how this could be done. We bought the equipment and started work,” she says. “Some were great at the embroidery but two really picked up on the business side of things, the quality control and the need to get it right.”

Today ten women work full-time making the cards, with another six doing embroidery part-time at home. The Offaly woman says proudly there are no volunteers involved now; it’s become a fully Haitian enterprise.

The business survived the earthquake, and Bracken says the income has been invaluable for devastated families.

“I was at the orphanage, it’s up in the mountains about 12 miles from Port au Prince. It was only when we got outside I realised what was going on. When I came down to the city, it was like a battlefield. You see it on the TV but the reality is terrible, the sounds of the dying. And the smell of death is all around you,” she says quietly.

At first that experience made her doubt her abilities when she saw how necessary medical staff were in the emergency. But now, having fund-raised for a medical centre there and continued to support the women’s business, she feels there is space for everyone’s skills.

“I don’t like people saying ‘you’re great, I could never do that’. I’m not great. There are loads of people who could do this. People have much more to offer than they realise,” she says.

Maeve Bracken volunteers with Viatores Christi and will be available for questions at Irish Aid’s Overseas Volunteering Fair.

This takes place from 11am – 4pm on Saturday, 29th September 2012 at the Irish Aid Volunteering and Information Centre, 27 – 31 Upper O’Connell Street.

A series of workshops will take place throughout the day including a panel discussion entitled “Volunteering in Retirement – What you have to Give and Gain”.

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