Extreme volunteering is extremely rewarding

Bob Howarth with one of his classes as an ABV volunteer at Padjadjaran University in West Java.

Bob Howarth has had a fascinating career in the media spanning Brisbane, Hong Kong and London. He was half the Brisbane bureau for the fledgling newspaper The Australian, and one of the first journalists to oversee the move into digital production processes.

But an action-packed professional working life was only the beginning of Bob’s adventures. The 70-year-old newspaperman has travelled overseas to volunteer his skills many times since retirement, and says the lifetime friendships make it extremely rewarding.

So how did it all starts?

At the end of last century, Bob was working for “the empire”, travelling to New Zealand and Papua New Guinea to work on News Limited newspapers there.

“I was back in Australia, overseeing the change to Y2K and ran a course in post-crisis reporting for a group of East Timorese journalists. By the end, I realised these journalists had nothing to come back to, so I got the all-clear from my boss and we arranged laptops and computers to be sent to Dili. I helped launch the Timor Post on 29 February, 2000″.

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Since then, Bob has made 22 trips to East Timor, including two assignments for Australian Business Volunteers. He officially retired in 2005 and but has continued to share the wisdom earned throughout his career. “I teach what I know, not from a book,” he says.

Bob has volunteered twice at Padjadjaran University in Bandung on Indonesia’s main island, Java, teaching layout and design courses.

“But the really plush job was when ABV asked me if I wanted to go to Bali,” says Bob.

He spend six months at the Institute for Peace and Democracy at Udayana University, designing the website and training staff who organise the annual Bali Democracy Forum, which is funded by Australia. Bob was made Media Communications Fellow to honour his involvement.

Tributes aside, Bob says the best thing about volunteering is the friendships he has made through mentoring. “I have hundreds of friends and adopted ‘grandkids’ who I keep up with on social media. I am particularly proud of my Indonesian students who are doing really well. One is based in Washington with the Foreign Affairs department, another is a producer of Metro TV in Indonesia, another works for biggest women’s magazine there and one has joined CNN. They’re all in their 20s and they all keep in touch”.

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When it comes to volunteering in developing countries, Bob says it takes a certain personality. “You need a lot of patience and to be someone who enjoys absorbing other cultures and can go with the flow. I’ve fasted through three Ramadans with students just so I know how they are feeling. The first time was during a stint in Banjul, West Africa; I lost five kilos that week!”

The majority of Bob’s volunteering experience has been with Australian Business Volunteers and, through this scheme, he feels his skills have really been put to use. “You’re never sitting around twiddling your thumbs, there’s real work to be done. And they look after you, picking up all costs – airfares, insurance, medical checks and so on. Once when I was in Bali, there was a mild earthquake and I got a text from the embassy asking if I was okay”.

If you’d like to learn more about volunteering overseas, visit Australian Business Volunteers and also Scope Global.


Have you volunteered overseas? We’d love to hear your stories! Share them in the comments.