Michelle Matthews is a marketing professional, and feels happiest when she is outdoors, helping others and bringing people together. After deciding to leave her job, she took time out to volunteer in Costa Rica, working on sea turtle conservation and a social construction project. She continued volunteering after returning to the UK, and enrolled with The Coaching Academy in London, before taking up a new position.
In this interview, Michelle talks about how the volunteering experience came about, and how it has been invaluable for her personal and professional development.
Connect with Michelle on LinkedIn.
What was your work situation before you took a career break to volunteer in Costa Rica?
I was in a head office marketing role in food retail. I was (and still am) extremely passionate about the brand, I worked hard and had successfully carved out two new start-up roles. But I had lost belief that there might be a future path for me there.
How did the decision come about to leave your job and pursue a career break?
It was thanks to a conversation with my dad. He had been quietly reflecting on his own career and my experience of work. And, like a wise owl, he planted some seeds for thought.
It prompted me to re-think my priorities and to have courage to find new fulfilment. It really was a conversation that changed my life.
“For as long as I can remember I’d always wanted to volunteer abroad, to do something with greater purpose and impact”
How did you approach planning your time out?
I had been saving for a mortgage, so I knew I could afford a short time away from paid work. For as long as I can remember I’d always wanted to volunteer abroad, to do something with greater purpose and impact while also seeing a little more of the world.
I had a long notice period at work, which gave me time to research opportunities and prepare myself for a few months off.
What did you hope to get out of the trip, and did you have any visions of what you might do after returning?
Life as I knew it wasn’t sustainable. I needed a renewed sense of self, to feel re-energised, and to gain some new perspective. I had no expectation about what would follow, but I hoped the time out would be nourishing and give me the capacity to think and ground myself a little.
Why did you opt for construction work and sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica, and how did you make the arrangements for the trip?
Away from my desk, I’m quite active outdoors, it makes me feel good. So I wanted to be involved in something practical, something physical. And to be a novice again, learning new subjects and skills.
I researched various overseas volunteer programs and was drawn to two different projects in Costa Rica. The reputation of International Volunteer HQ sealed my decision and they facilitated all the arrangements.
“My host family in San José spoke no English whatsoever, which made it a truly immersive experience.”
What was the most challenging aspect of the experience for you?
My host family in San José spoke no English whatsoever, which made it a truly immersive experience. It was uncomfortable at times too, because you’re living in someone else’s home, unable to communicate your needs or ask about theirs. But I took Spanish lessons at the local language school and soon relaxed.
We found some fun with the Google Translate app, and ‘Spanglish’ and physical theatre soon became our default communication!
What are the standout experiences and memories of your time in Costa Rica?
In San José I was part of a team that was building accommodation for single mums and children from poverty, mostly violent or gang-related backgrounds. Each day we travelled by local bus to an out-of-town construction site. Typical tasks included levelling walls, sanding and painting.
Unlike in the UK, there isn’t the availability of some standard tools, and health and safety equipment; it was precarious but rewarding work. Its importance grew too when we saw other completed projects – nearby community and education centres. They were a labour of love; colourful and inspiring. They represented hope.
“I felt connected, inspired and more at peace with my own life.”
My next stop was Ostional, on the pacific coast, living at a remote government refuge, dedicated to protecting the nesting site of the Olive Ridley sea turtle. Most of our work was at night — collecting data, tagging turtles, counting eggs and relocating vulnerable nests into hatcheries. We would also release baby turtles, which was a beautiful sight, seeing them follow the moonlight across the sand to the ocean.
I also witnessed an incredible natural phenomenon, an ‘arribada’, which is the mass nesting of thousands of sea turtles. Arribadas at this beach are considered the largest in the world, and experiencing it first-hand was just spectacular.
Weekends could be adventurous too! It was a chance to explore more of Costa Rica’s culture and landscape with new friends. Highlights for me included the amazing natural parks, the wildlife and views, discovering natural hot springs, going by boat through remote jungle, and renting a tuk tuk. Great fun!
What did you learn from the experience that you could never have learned in your regular work?
Apart from a reminder that learning new languages is not my forte(!), I realised I was gaining a privileged insight into local life in a developing country. The reality of all that you see, hear and feel is amplified. Among Costa Ricans, there is a deeper sense of gratefulness for life and that whatever you have will satisfy you. And they make it beautiful too.
I rediscovered just ‘being’ in the moment. At first the stillness of time genuinely frightened me, and I wondered if I’d ever return home. But my mind eventually calmed down. I didn’t have deadlines, social commitments or expectations I ‘should’ meet, and I could focus on conversation without thinking about what else I needed to do, where else I needed to be.
I got great joy from chatting with people of all ages, 16 to over 60. What struck me most was people’s honesty and humility about life. I read somewhere that when we show ourselves to someone it gives them the opportunity to show themselves to us. How very true.
There was no pretending, no fear of judgement, no attempt to impress. Listening and learning that life is not all that it seems to be. The authenticity was refreshing. I felt connected, inspired and more at peace with my own life.
Have you found any challenges in readjusting after returning home from the break?
I continued volunteering on my return home, working in a creative capacity with a local project called Ugly Duckling to upcycle and sell furniture to raise money for the charity Mind. I love DIY and painting so this was right up my street!
Supporting good mental health is also close to my heart. Through a networking group, I was invited to gain a recognised certification in Mental Health First Aid. It’s one of those roles you hope you never need to put into action but, like physical first aid, it could save a life.
I also attended various workshops and seminars as part of my ongoing personal development. One result of this was my enrolment with The Coaching Academy. Out of curiosity, I attended their introductory weekend in London and it had a profound and positive effect on me. I’m early on in my training, but it’s connected me with an amazing community of coaches and mentors. Already it’s the best commitment I could have made to my own happiness.
You have started a new job since returning home in retail marketing management – how did this come about?
Marketing is my profession and I anticipated I would return to it. My journey to finding a new role was positive too. Along the way I met recruiters and other professionals who had, at one time or another, also taken time out from work. They celebrated my career break and saw it as something that enhanced my CV, offering a clearer sense of my own personal values and goals.
Have you been able to apply any of the lessons you learned from your volunteering experience in your new role?
Unfortunately I joined my new company only a couple of weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown, so it’s been an extraordinary start to say the least! The lesson for me though is keeping in mind my renewed perspective and to actively bring more balance to every day.
What advice would you give to other people considering taking time out of their career to volunteer abroad or travel?
If you feel ‘stuck’ in life, have a burning passion or want to try something new, don’t be afraid to explore it. You are more than your job title. Free yourself of other peoples’ expectations of life, and learn more about what you care about, the things that really matter to you.
It’s not always realistic to take a break from work, but starting a meaningful conversation with someone who wants to help you could be the first step to making a change.
Inspired to take time out to do something meaningful? Our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break can help you to plan it. You can also read more of our interviews with career break travellers.
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