It’s midmorning. The sun hovers just above the trees, and the air is crisp with island humidity. Down a dirt road thick with mud and glistening from the water left by last night’s rainfall stands a 12-by-8-foot building. It is a tiny school in a village called Vunato at the edge of Lautoka, Fiji.
In the small clearing where the school stands, children race around the yard before being called into class. They shriek and giggle at one another; their backpacks lie on the ground, discarded in the midst of their pre-school fun. They seem especially excited today as they run their fingers along the walls of their newly finished school in a dazed sort of wonder. The structure has a fresh coat of paint—the red roof and white walls gleam triumphantly—and the inside is renovated with new flooring and has new shelving that is full of the latest school materials and art supplies.
The school’s prospects have not always been so optimistic. Before volunteers from HELP International discovered it, the Vunato school, also known as a kindy, was caught in an operational limbo. The funding, which had been provided by members from the village, had hit its limit, and the project seemed impossible to complete.
Since the village is too far from any sort of preschool-level education available in the city, those living in Vunato have no educational options available for children under the age of six, which is when Fijian children typically enter “class one,” or first grade. A group of nine women from the village, who have come to be known as “The Nine,” were determined to change this. Coming together to build the school, they started with nothing but a solid resolve to do just that.
To raise funds, “we make food and sell it at summer fairs,” says Miss Klera, whose property houses the small school. The group also managed to get some donated funds from the organization Save the Children, but the amount they received was only enough to get the project started. From that point, it was up to these women to obtain supplies such as primer, paint, carpet, and flooring.
On top of that, they also had to create a curriculum for the kids, something that they had absolutely no experience doing. And to further complicate things, the school would need an established teaching figure to teach in both Fijian and English, the primary languages of the island.
“Education in a third-world country like Fiji can get a little strained,” says HELP International volunteer Sherin Olson of Soda Springs, Idaho. “Any school, be it a primary, a secondary, or a preschool like this kindy, is required to meet certain qualifications in order to get any sort of recognition or funding. That’s why there are a lot of unregistered or unrecognized schools here.”
It was a blessing that the volunteers from HELP International found Vunato when they did. The teacher, Lavina (who prefers to be called La), asked if they could teach her class for a week so that she could go to a teaching conference in another city to strengthen her teaching skills, something she had wanted to do ever since her impromptu teaching career had begun two years earlier. Because of the volunteers’ help, La was able to go to the conference.
The volunteers also decided to work on the school. “We wanted to help finish what the women had started,” says Nikki Richardson of Logan, Utah, another volunteer. After evaluating what needed to be done, the volunteers started their work: they built shelves inside the kindy for organization, finished priming the inside and the outside of the school, painted it in fresh colors, and distributed new school materials that had been donated by the mother of another volunteer in their group. “She is a teacher and loved Vunato’s story so much that she rallied other teachers at her school to send stuff over,” Richardson reports.
La is a member of The Nine—and is also the kindy’s teacher. She is a kind, selfless woman who treks to the school every day with her daughter, Vika, one of the children who attend the kindy every day. La’s lesson book is always in her arms, full of the kids’ drawings and spelling practice sheets. She commits nearly all of her time and energy to teaching at the small school that she and others helped build from the ground up. What’s more, she does not get paid for her efforts.
“Until her husband mentioned it,” says Olson, “we didn’t know that La was volunteering her time to educate the kids in her village when nobody else would. She is a saint and truly deserved anything we could give her.”
La embodies diligence and patience in her teaching. One of the tactics she uses to help the kids learn and differentiate between languages is to sing songs in Fijian and then repeat them in English. Spelling and writing, which take place after song time, are split in a similar pattern. The kids say the word, spell it orally, and then write it out on sheets of paper. Then comes art time, when they get to do water painting, a special treat. According to La, the art supplies are the most expensive items, but spending time on art projects is her favorite thing to do with the kids.
Indeed, strung on the walls of the kindy are art projects and posters aplenty; they give the small classroom life and color that showcase the many different personalities and attitudes of the children that enter the school every day.
The Parents’ Night
Grateful for the support and aid that the school was receiving, La decided to host a parents’ night at the kindy; it would be a reopening of the newly completed school. The nine women who had undertaken the incredible task of building the school from nothing showed the same kind of dedication in carrying out this event. They made food, invited the kids’ parents, wrote speeches, and even put up a tent for people to sit under.
On the night of the reopening, families gathered outside in their best clothes, beaming at the finished school and the heaps of donated school materials and toys that were placed at the front of the party. “When La gave her speech, she started crying, and then we all lost it,” relates Richardson. “But those women don’t give themselves credit. We only did a little—they created this, the chance for their kids to get an education. Vunato is full of incredible people.”
The school currently hosts children ages three to six. While attendance is inconsistent, the kids are learning. For these women, this learning is essential.
Now the kindy stands as a beacon of hope and blessings for the people of Vunato. “I feel like we gave La courage and strength to keep teaching,” says Olson. “Yes, we provided supplies to better educate her students, but we also helped create a parental awareness of the importance of education, which is what La was trying to do all along. I am also a teacher, and it is the best feeling to realize that there are others who support your cause.”
Fiji is a place renowned for its natural beauty and its pristine beaches. It’s also a place where local people are eager to improve their lives and, more importantly, the lives of their children. It’s a place where a group of nine women decided that they needed a school, and so they built one.
Photography by Katie Macdonald