Monday, 27 June 2016

Helping hands

What feels better than a holiday in paradise? Volunteer work in the remote Yasawa Islands not only soothes the soul, it puts our "first world" problems into perspective.

"In exchange for opening up to tourists, villages in the remote Yasawa Islands are getting education, labour and help protecting their environment.

The clear water, colourful coral and simple beach life may look like idyllic, but the locals struggle with shortages of clean drinking water, health and education services and the sustainability of their eco-system.

The children at the primary school in Soso Village, Naviti Island​ - and, as I've just discovered, their parents and siblings too - are among those benefiting from the programme. The programme has seen its students go from significantly below national average in literacy to leading the way in test results among their peers.

Tema Savu is a former teacher who was asked to come out of retirement to lead the local education program. She is the mother-figure to the volunteers who come from around the world to work with the kids. Tears well up in her eyes ad she takes a moment to get her voice under control before she tells me about them. "I get quite emotional when I think about this. I'm just touched we have some amazing young people taking part in the programme."

One is a Brit, Sarah Ashton. This remote Pacific island is physically and culturally a long way from her home city of Manchester. she first came for a week about 18 months ago and kept returning. "I've done all three programmes," she tells me. "Education, sustainable community and marine conservation."

The village is below world standards of health and poverty and Sarah was initially shocked by the lack of resources. "A lot of the teaching is done on basic blackboards," she says. "Some of the kids didn't even have pens or pencils."

The experience had such an impact on Sarah that when she returned home to the UK last year, she worked through her church to raise enough money to buy pencil cases for four classrooms.

Vinaka Fiji volunteers have clocked up more than 20,000 hours teaching groups or providing one to one teaching to locals of all ages from youngsters to adults. The results speak for themselves. Yasawa High School has gone from one of the most under-performing schools in Fiji to see a pass rate of 71 per cent in form 7 last year.

Tema Savu is working with primary-aged children and is thrilled with their progress. She tells me of one particular child who didn't know the alphabet or the sounds the letters made. "The other day she read a book - The Three Pigs. I had to stop myself from jumping up and hugging her. But she knew. She was happy."

Writer: Debbie Griffiths
Source: New Zealand Herald Travel Supplement - June 28, 2016