A 66-year-old retiree on a J-1 summer visa to the US has said her friends all thought her “a bit of a lunatic” when she announced her decision to head stateside. 

Fiona Griffin was made to retire from her job in April and found herself at a bit of a loose end for the first time in many years. 

“I didn’t want to sit around at home twiddling my thumbs,” she explained to Lunchtime Live. 

“And I started researching and I found an organisation called camp leaders which organises staff for summer camps in the US. 

“So I applied and Clear Water Camp contacted me, interviewed me and offered me a job. 

“So I accepted and then because of the type of work it is, it’s a sponsored job by Cultural Heritage International, so it turned out to be a J-1 visa for this type of work.” 

‘My friends thought I was a lunatic,’ says 66-year-old on a J-1 in America

00: 00: 00 / 00: 00: 00

On 5th June she jetted off to Wisconsin where she has a job working at a summer camp for girls aged between eight and 16. 

“I’m not a cabin counsellor as such, but I’m an activities counsellor which means I would be assisting teaching canoeing, swimming, archery,” she continued. 

“And they run a programme called ‘Incredible Journeys’ which is where we sit around with the children. We get them to tell us stories, we look to the future, we look at their dreams, their ideas, things like that. 

“We teach them skills. 

“So it’s full on, even though the children are arriving on Wednesday and in fact I’m going to Chicago with one of the other activity counsellors to pick up a busload and collect them from the airport and from the buses and bus them back here.” 

When most people think of someone on a J-1 it is a college student in their early 20s working in a bar in Boston, New York or San Francisco. They usually rent the cheapest accommodation and spend the rest of their money on booze and trips to the beach.

Fiona admits that “No one got a bigger kick out of standing in a line of 20-year-olds in the American Embassy in May” and says her friends were shocked when she told them of her decision: 

“A few of them said, ‘What are you saying?’ ‘What are you doing?’” she recalled. 

“Now my family were better than the friends, the friends thought I was a bit of a lunatic but for me coming to a summer camp like this it was a very safe option. 

“I was coming to live with a group, I had a roof over my head and food in my belly and there were people around all the time.

“So for me, it was one of the safe options and once I explained that to my family they were very happy for me. They’re delighted I’m able to follow my dream and that I’m doing something that I want to do. 

“This has been my dream since I’ve been a 16, 17-year-old.”

Fiona has spent two weeks in training ahead of the arrival of the children and during that time she has already gotten to know her colleagues very well. 

“They’re all amazing,” she said. 

“We’re like one big family and there’s another Irish girl from Dublin and… we all get on very well.” 

It is something that has changed her life and with hindsight she has realised that retirement has become something of a blessing: 

“It was the best thing that has happened to me having to retire,” she enthused. 

“Because it made me look at life, what I want to do and it has allowed me to follow one of my dreams.”

The J-1 visa was suspended as COVID spread across the world but 3,392 Irish people were granted the visa in 2019.

Main Image: Fiona Griffin. Picture by: retiree_on_a_j1_visa