Gwen Coe - General Care Projects in Fiji
BULA! I’m Gwen Coe, 18 years old. I had to leave school early last year and I looked for something else to do. Lucky for me, I had ‘Google’ on my side and he was considerate enough to inform me about Projects Abroad! Something seemed to click automatically with the organisation and I began looking at what placements they had to offer and which countries.
At the moment of applying, I really only chose Fiji because it was the furthest possible piece of land away from Scotland that I could get too! It was also one of the countries that offered a placement which let you work with kids who have special needs. The islands themselves are obviously also absolutely breathtaking and I got very excited about knowing that I would soon be able to call this paradise, home!
The next 6 months dragged by so unbelievably slowly it was almost unbearable. I had daily questions for the Fiji Assistant Manager, who was brilliant! She never got tired of my enthusiastic enquiries and questions! The support I got before going on my placement was 110%. As the days to departure grew close I packed my bags, putting in a few Scottish gifts for my school and host family and before I knew it, my adventure was beginning!
After 2 sets of 13 hour flights and a 23 hour layover in Hong Kong, I arrived! Lacking sleep to the maximum, dozily, I walked off the plane. A rushing wave of heat slapped me in the face and the smell of ‘Fiji’ tickled my nose! As the holiday goers, residents returning home and myself walked into the arrivals hall, we were all greeted by two cheerful looking men in their ‘Bula shirts’ and ‘Sulu’s (pretty much a sarong!) One had a Ukulele, the other a guitar and they were singing a welcome song for us! I knew from that second, I was going to like it here. Oripa, (one of the Projects Abroad staff) was there to meet me and to take me to my new family. She was very friendly and I felt very welcome.
To be quite honest, I don’t know where to start from now on. Fiji is beautiful. It’s loving, smiley, friendly people, the old jam packed buses playing loud reggae beats, the food, the flora, the fauna, the sun and so much more, is going to be how I remember this place.
My host family were ten times more incredible then I could actually put down in words. As I got out of the car a little girl ran at me and threw her arms around my waist, giving me a cheeky gappie tooth smile! I was lead into the house by Rosa and was introduced to my new dad. He was a lovely cheerful bloke and he started on the jokes and teasing from my first evening in the house! I felt at home immediately. Rosa and her adorable cheeky daughter Tara, were only visiting, family friends. Pei, my “host mum” was up in Suva, picking up her daughter. So for the first week and a bit it was Rosa, Tara, Martin my awesome roommate Maxi and I.
Once Mami (Pei) arrived with her daughter or in better words, my sister Jackie, the place turned into a mad house! It was brilliant. I loved the constant coming and goings of friends, the Kava sessions in the evenings and the stories my host dad had to tell me!
On my first day at work, Anne, (one of the Projects Abroad staff) brought me to Nadi’s Centre for Special Education and introduced me to the headmaster, who further introduced me to my assigned class and workmate. Anne made sure that I was comfortable and happy before she left and rushed off to see to another volunteer’s needs. Andrew, my workmate rushed through the 20 odd names of the class, their ages, which ranged from 10 – 19, listed their disabilities and left the room.
In total shock all I could do was smile at the curious faces shyly smiling at me. A boy throwing a ruler at another students head brought me to reality however and I began my day by telling them about myself and where I came from. (Andrew soon returned) It was very hard for them to say my name, so they were supposed to call me ‘Miss’ but I was mostly known as “Teacher’. ‘Teacher, Teacher, here! Me Teacher!” I can’t say I miss being shouted at! One of their favourite questions for me was “How many Fiji’s in Scotland?” Each time I told them, none that I was aware, they would be deeply disappointed!
It was an overwhelming start and I know a lot of people have and would find it very hard to work with these children, but the bond I formed with my class is unbreakable. Every single one of my pupils are beautiful and entirely unique. I have never ever done something so rewarding.
A typical day at the school for me was a 9am start; maths with them until 10:15. Then there would be recess for 15 minutes, where I’d be outside melting and burning in the sun and meeting the other students, playing games with them. ‘Picture time’ was always a whole school favourite. After those 15 minutes, I would have my coffee and whichever snack had been prepared that morning and joined the kind of ‘staff meeting’ with the other teachers. After recess finished, was English. During this lesson I would first do what Andrew had requested and then for those who were more capable, do something a little different. Sometimes I also did a bit of art with them. They enjoyed that a lot.
At lunch; 12:30, I was free to go or stay, which some afternoons I did, others I would rather go home and relax or spend it with family and friends. Lots of events happened during my placement there; we had a ‘Go Green Mission’, which the older students participated in, picking up rubbish and putting it into separate bags for recycling. We also had Sports Day, which was sponsored by McDonalds for all the Special Needs Schools on the West Coast. It was a bit unorganised, started about three hours later then it was supposed too but it was great fun, as always people were on ‘Fiji time’! (a nice excuse for laziness!) At the end of term we also had a big party at the Fiji Hardrock Cafe, sponsored by ‘Jacks’. It was full of dancing, games, and lots of food and lots of fun! The kids have made me grow so much in myself; I owe them a lot. I wish and hope that I will see them all again one day in the near future.
As for my free time and exploring, there was almost too much to choose from. Due to the lovely big bunch of volunteers, there was never anybody short to go and do something with either. I only went on one island trip to Monoriki (the Castaway Island) and that was my taster of the “tourist” side of Fiji. I also went to Lautoka to watch the 7th Harry Potter! I very quickly made lots of local friends, and I rather spent my time with them, drinking the local Kava, making music and learning about their culture.
Four months later and not a single day goes by where I don’t think about every single person I met in Fiji and the impact they had on me without me even realising. This experience has changed me as person, the best experience in my life by far! I completely fell in Love with the Country. Leaving Fiji was very hard for me; it was like being forced to leave a piece of me behind. The Fiji Islands are my home!
I want to say a big VINAKA VAKA LEVU to my Indi/Fijian family, all my foreign and local friends and to all the local Projects Abroad staff; and also Nadi Airport school, for the awesome week of summer school I participated in. Also a big, grateful and forever in dept VINAKA VAKA LEVU to the Nadi Centre for Special Education for everything you’ve done for me, you have no idea how grateful I am.
Last but not least a separate big grateful VINAKA VAKA LEVU goes to Anne Buglass for being such a brilliant Assistant Manager, you were great to be around, super helpful and heaps of fun, without your support it would of been much harder, so thank you m’dear!
FOR FIJI, EVER FIJI!
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.