Mira working with members of the Himba tribe in Namibia, sometime between 1998-2002

9 lessons in living life to the full: From 81-years-young volunteer Mira

“You can only do your bit. But that’s enough” says serial volunteer Mira Howard. She has been supporting VSO for 18 years, having set off on her first placement at the age of 63. 

Although she ‘retired’ from volunteering five years ago she is today, aged 81, still supporting the communities she met as a volunteer.

Mira working with members of the Himba tribe in Namibia, sometime between 1998-2002
Mira working with members of the Himba tribe in Namibia, sometime between 1998-2002

Mira supports two schools and an orphanage in Thailand and Namibia. She even financed a dormitory and classroom – both named after her.

She is active as ever, swimming 50 lengths a week and visiting the projects she helps each year. Today Mira has five children, eleven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. 

She shares some of the lessons learned along the course of her extraordinary life – and why she’s not ready to stop yet.

1. Sometimes change happens to you when you least expect it. It’s how you cope with it that matters.

“I was 62 years old when I lost my husband. It made me look at life in a new way. For the first time in my life I was free. No one was dependent on me. I knew I wanted to do something different with my life.

“I always wanted to help people and was always looking for opportunities to do so. So I applied for VSO. I was accepted despite my artificial hips and worked continuously with VSO for almost 14 years in three continents”

2. The skills and experience you take for granted could really help someone else.

“I was a special needs teacher in Britain. When I was in my first job with VSO in Namibia, I was promoted about 17 ranks!

“I had a Master’s degree in the psychology of learning for children with special needs. That meant I was able to take a role in the Ministry of Education in Namibia and was in charge of special education for a few years. I had to take my parking space next to the permanent secretary and pretend I was important!”

Mira working with adults with autism. She has contributed to increased understanding of special educational needs in three countries, impacting many thousands of people.

3. Keep smiling

“I wasn’t scared when I set out to volunteer. But when I landed in Namibia I was a little bit lonely and frightened. But it passes. Things weren’t always easy. There was terrible racism in the country and you had to be very careful.

 “You have to keep smiling. You have to keep calm. You have to take each day as it comes and do what good you can, when you can.”

4. There’s always a time to start and a time to leave

“It’s no good hanging on when you’ve done your bit. After working in Thailand on autism understanding and inclusion for special educational needs I knew I had done what I could.”

“So I took a new role in Guyana. I worked as a lecturer – it was fascinating! There was only one university, and one teacher training college in the country. I loved my diverse students – first nation people as well as peoples of Indian and African descent.”

 “I was able to continue my raising of autism awareness in my final year which VSO arranged for me and it was very needed and successful.”

5. Volunteering and travel broaden the mind

“I’ve lived and worked in Asia, Africa and South America. It has broadened my understanding of other cultures immensely. I have a better understanding of other people and where they’re coming from. What poverty can do to people. You learn to be much less judgemental.”

Mira visiting a primary school in Namibia, where she has built a classroom. She visits each year with donations of clothes.

6. You can only do your little bit. But that’s enough.

“With VSO, you can do your little bit. You can do your millimetre. That’s all. But if everyone did millimetres it would make the world different.

“You can’t go out there and expect to change the world. But sometimes you can find that you have made a difference. That is very surprising and gratifying."

7. Turn your ‘weaknesses’ into strengths

“I was a little bit of a failure at school. I was 17 when my adopted mother died. My adopted father didn’t really want to know. I remember feeling pretty insecure, living in London as an out-of-work actress in the 1950s. We all got jobs in Harrods.

Today, 81-year-old great-grandmother Mira is still supporting the communities she met whilst volunteering with VSO
Today, 81-year-old great-grandmother Mira is still supporting the communities she met whilst volunteering with VSO

“I’m still insecure now – I’m just doing my best. Your insecurity can be a positive. It makes you more sensitive to things.”

8. You really are only as old as you feel.

“I was 63 when I first volunteered with VSO. Working with younger people was a great experience. I forgot my age.

“I’m 81 now. I work with a social work organisation and in a library. I volunteer in the local school. I also act and do bar work for my local amateur theatre.

“I want to be active. I don’t want to stop. Some I know have become old people, moaning about their ailments. I don’t want to be like that.”

9. You’ve only got one life - it's your responsibility to make it count

“You only live once - so go for it and make the best of it. If you decide to volunteer you’ll be rewarded more than you expect. You’ll gain more than you give, almost, in the end.”

People of all ages achieve amazing things volunteering with VSO. You could join them. 

Find out about volunteering with VSO

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