Jemma volunteered in Fiji at a School for Children with Disabilities
Fiji may be miles from home but it is always somewhere which will be close to my heart and somewhere which I am proud to call my second home. I was placed in Hilton Special School which caters for children with disabilities, specifically those with physical and hearing impairments.
As someone with no previous experience with anyone with disabilities upon arrival at my placement, I began to wonder what and how I could contribute to the lives of these children but I soon began to realise that it’s the small things that matter.
In the morning I would climb on the school bus, arriving with the majority of the children all eager for the day ahead. Every day, without a doubt, I would be greeted by smiling faces calling out ‘Good Morning Teacher Jemma’. I was placed in Master Serevi’s class – someone who will always inspire me. Being deaf himself, he teaches a combined class of students all with hearing impairments.
Thanks to learning the alphabet in sign language as a Brownie I was able to scrape by on my first day – even learning a few simple signs. I found it incredibly frustrating not being able to communicate fully with the teacher or the students but this gave me the determination I needed to learn their language. Looking back now, without that experience I may never have had the encouragement and support needed to learn to sign. Every day after school I would go through the sign language dictionary and try and teach myself some new words and the children were always extremely supportive and encouraging. My confidence increased, slowly, and I did teach a couple of lessons by myself. My duties varied on a daily basis, sometimes I focused on one to one learning, sometimes I helped by creating worksheets as well as just generally helping out the other teachers.
I think one of my biggest achievements during my placement was creating a study/play room for the children that lived at the school. Previously the children used to complete their homework in the noisy communal area and had nowhere to play. I decided to transform one of the spare back rooms into what is now their recreational room.
During the school holidays I was a part of the Deaf Awareness Team. We spent a week travelling, visiting villages to promote sign language and deaf culture and educating people to try and eliminate communication barriers. It was also an opportunity to find any potential students who weren’t aware of the school. It was so refreshing living in a community where the biggest part of your life is your family and your friends and not money and what Playstation you own. Fiji is about ensuring your family and friends are ‘set’. Everyone you meet in Fiji is so welcoming and as a ‘kavalagi’ especially in the village, people want to know all about you. No quick two minute introductions, but who you are, why you’re in Fiji, how many are in your family back home, how old you are? When asked what I was doing in Fiji I felt so proud to tell them that I was a volunteer. Being a volunteer meant I was able to give something back to the community and it is something that I found extremely worthwhile. Everyone was so grateful that I was volunteering as a teacher in a school that caters for children with disabilities.
The biggest challenge for me was leaving and returning home; I suffered from worse culture shock coming back than I did going out. I still expect to be greeted by a warm smile passing people in the street. As clichéd as it sounds my time spent in Fiji made me understand myself better, giving me a new direction and focus in my life. It didn’t change me as a person but put my life into perspective and taught me that money cannot buy happiness and it’s the people that make life what it is.
My year with Lattitude Global Volunteering has taught me so many new things and allowed me to see the world from a different perspective. Being in Fiji has been challenging at times but has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life so far. There isn’t one thing I’d change. It allowed me to see my strengths and my weaknesses and through this enabled me to become a stronger person.
Never did a day go by where the children failed to put a smile on my face. I can’t thank the Lattitude Global Volunteering enough for making this happen. Without them I would never have met the people I did and who I now consider my best friends and my family. I am forever grateful and can now look forward in my life with the same passion, enthusiasm and gratefulness I saw among the people of Fiji. Vinaka Vakalevu.