Karen MacLaurin’s Next Chapter

There are few members of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL) who are unfamiliar with Karen MacLaurin. The lively Executive Director of Ottawa’s County of Carleton Law Association for the past 20 years, Karen has been a fixture at CALL conferences for more years than any of us want to remember. She has also been a key contributor to many CALL initiatives. The Copyright Committee, Vendors’ Liaison Committee, Courthouse Librarians’ SIG, as well as other groups, have all benefitted from Karen’s energy and experience. In 2007, Karen was the chair of the program committee for the Ottawa CALL conference.

This spring, Karen left her long-time professional home at the County of Carleton (we’re not allowed to use the word “retired” since she has only “retired from this position” – not working life in general). Too young to consider Boca, she’s been looking for ways to use her experience and expand her horizons. And has she ever!

On November 25, 2008, Karen will be moving to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, as a CUSO-VSO Canada volunteer. The merging of CUSO and VSO on November 1, 2008 “makes it Canada’s largest international cooperation agency that works through volunteers.” Their aim is to fight global poverty and disadvantage. Karen will be teaching and training students and continuing the set up of a resource centre for the English Department at the Pedagogical University in Maputo, which also has four (4) other campuses throughout the country.

I caught up with her via e-mail and voice to find out more.

This is a big change – what inspired the decision to opt for a volunteering adventure?

I have always wanted to work overseas – since I was a child. I really felt the need to do something meaningful and good for the soul – my way.

How did you come to choose the VSO? (We researchers want to know the resources available to vet service organizations, etc).

Since I live in Ottawa, I am familiar with VSO and CUSO as volunteer organizations with good reputations. I went onto their websites and realized that VSO seemed like a good match for my skills. They have six (6) programme goals around the world and I thought I fit into two (2) of them ie. education or governance & participation.

Tell us about Mozambique — what do you know?

For the readers out there (okay everyone), I read a wonderful book with the crazy title of Kalashnikovs and zombie cucumbers: travels in Mozambique by Nick Middleton. It helped explain the civil war which ended in 1992 and left the country extremely poor and with a high rate of illiteracy (plus land mines particularly in the north).

Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony, settled by Portuguese traders in 1507. It was granted independence in 1975. The country has been ravaged by war – the Portuguese Colonial War 1961 to 1974 which also involved Angola and Guinea Bissau and the civil war from which ended in 1992. It has approx. 2500 kms of white sand beaches on the Indian Ocean –- due south of Tanzania and bordered by South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Swaziland on the west. The population is about 20 million and roughly the same size as Turkey. Like Darwin, Australia where my son and I lived in 1997, it has a tropical climate with two seasons – the wet and the dry. The government is trying to rebuild the roads and infrastructure, increase tourism, improve education and deal with a population suffering from HIV/AIDS.

What does your project entail, and what resources are available to you?

I will be working in the English Department of the Universidade Pedagogica Maputo developing the resource centre there, print and electronic resources, and also ensuring more computers with internet access and other equipment necessary for a university educating teachers. Mozambique is in desperate need of trained teachers. The objectives are to provide quality education focused on distance teacher training (there are four other satellite campuses in the country), building human resource capacity and working on advocacy. In terms of resources – it is my job to provide more equipment and resources and fund-raising is a key component of that role.

How does the process work in international volunteering? What are the bureaucratic hurdles? How does VSO help you find the information you need, and to what extent do they assist in things like arranging housing, transport, etc?

I highly recommend it to anyone considering volunteering abroad. The process requires patience and you need to get started early on the paperwork. Mozambique requires my original diplomas (couriered there and back) and I had just packed up and sold my home – so the diplomas were in boxes. VSO Canada has provided excellent training and support. First, you apply (forms to fill out), then you attend an Assessment where you work together with other applicants and your interpersonal and problem-solving skills are assessed over several days. Next, there was a four (4) day Preparing for Change training session and recently a five (5) day Skills for Working in Development course. When I arrive in Maputo, I will be in six (6) weeks of further language and country specific training with four (4) other people volunteering in Mozambique.

Transportation to the country is covered by VSO, housing is provided by the institution you are working for there ie. in my case the Pedagogical University. Housing can vary from shared accommodation with two or three other volunteers or a small apartment on your own. There is no way of knowing until you are in-country. You are paid a small stipend ie. about $10.00 a day to provide a healthy and modest lifestyle. VSO covers medical insurance while you are volunteering.

How much of your time is committed to the project – will you have an opportunity to travel in Mozambique (or more broadly?)

I am certainly hoping to travel throughout Mozambique and visit Pemba in the north and the old capital city of Ilha do Mozambique (a UNESCO World Heritage site). Air travel is expensive and roads are still fairly rough. Travel by bus could take 10 to 30 hours to get to your dream location. I already have friends lined up wanting to visit me and my son is hoping to fly from London to Nairobi in February where, hopefully, we can meet up. Kruger National Park in South Africa is nearby and there is an Elephant Reserve near Maputo –- all very exciting.

What excites you most about this new chapter in your life? What do you think you will get out of this experience?

Everyone has been really supportive of my finally doing this – including my 82 year old mother, Peggy, who I hope will come to visit escorted by my son David. I love travel and adventure so volunteering in Mozambique certainly fulfills those deep personal needs. The opportunity to meet new people and learn from them and grow as a person is an amazing adventure to me. I know I will learn more from those I work with and meet in Mozambique than they will learn from me. Right now, I need to do something meaningful for me and this seems like a good fit. Financially, it is not my smartest move but money isn’t everything.


I know that the best wishes of the library community (and a certain amount of envy) go with Karen as she opens this exciting new chapter in her life. It’s received knowledge in librarianship that we follow a calling as well as a profession, and Karen’s certainly living that message with this project. Those interested in following Karen’s adventures will be able to follow her through her blog, If you wish to support Karen’s project and the work of the VSO, Karen is also fundraising. Best wishes, and many happy adventures, Karen!


  1. Thanks so much for catching us up on what Karen is doing. I wish her the best in her new adventures!

  2. Rex Turgano, a BC librarian who was most recently working with Andornot Consulting, is also about to embark on a volunteer mission with VSO. Rex will be moving to Nepal! Like Karen, he’s also keeping a blog: What movers and shakers we have among us!

  3. For those who may be interested in a shorter-term commitment and would like to explore volunteering in other countries, the Lonely Planet publishes a guide to finding safe, “legitimate” volunteering opportunities. Volunteer vacations are becoming a booming business, but you have to be smart about it.