Some twelve years ago a friend casually mentioned she’d signed up on something called ‘Workaway’ to find people to help with her renovation project. It seemed like a great idea so I also signed up. Nothing happened for several months and, to be honest, I’d forgotten all about it until we got a message from a young couple who were travelling with their pop up caravan called Brian - they stayed for three weeks and were hugely instrumental in building the stables and helping the horses settle in when we moved them from the livery yard to our own land.
After that came two friends who were travelling together from Australia; one of whom now has three children of her own! Since then we’ve hosted over two hundred volunteers, from Russia to New Zealand, South Africa to Macao, North and South America and many, many people from the UK and all parts of Europe. Our youngest volunteer was just 17 (but showed incredible maturity when she discovered a snake curled up asleep in her bath towel!) and the oldest were an intrepid British couple in their late 60’s.
The longest stay has been 11 months, the shortest one night; only a few thankfully but each one of those were memorable! Many, many volunteers have returned, some each year and one came back five times during just one summer. It’s been wonderful to see how their lives have changed over the years - the 19 year old who is now a qualified lawyer, the student who is now a mother, the guy who hadn’t been around horses for ten years who is now a head groom to an international competition team…the list is endless.
So what do the volunteers do here at O Vale dos Cavalos? The daily chores are those that come with having lots of animals - putting food in at one end and cleaning up the inevitable output from the other end!
But after that the work varies - it could be clearing undergrowth to reduce the annual summer wildfire risk, painting the courtyard walls, weeding and planting the vegetable patches, building walls and knocking other walls down, washing horses and cleaning the cars (the latter is one job I irrationally hate and haven’t now done for many years!).
Then there’s the downtime - long walks in the beautiful countryside, trips to the lake, pool nights at our local bar and lots of laughs over a shared dinner and glass - or two - of delicious Portuguese wine.
Since training as a remedial hypnotist I’ve also had a steady supply of subjects to practice on - so far I’ve dealt with several spider phobias, a severe case of travel sickness, a disobedient bladder and - most memorably - a volunteer who’d completely lost her riding confidence; the joy of seeing her back in the saddle with a massive smile was amazing!
Hosting volunteers has been immensely rewarding - meeting wonderful people from around the world, all with their own stories to share, skills to learn and viewpoints to discuss. Having not had children of our own (by choice) James and I now have a massive ‘family’, all of which have a special place in our hearts.
Have you ever volunteered? Or have you been a host? Tell me your experiences!