Family and community can mean many things to many different people. Sometimes in life these things can be found by the most unlikely people and in the most surprising places. It’s not everyday that a 16 year-old Australian teenager could claim to be part of a family on Pele Island, but for generations of class 10 students at Shearwater Steiner School in Mullumbimby, that is exactly the case. A relationship between these two unlikely tribes began back in 2007 when the class 10 teachers and students were looking at ways of giving back to the community. The school had previously visited Vanuatu, but was wondering how they could shift the focus from an overseas excursion to something a bit more meaningful for all involved, and so ‘The Pele Island project’ was born. Community meetings were arranged between the Pele people and the school and a partnership was formed between these two very different communities. The plan was to help sustain an income for the villagers of Warasifu and Launomoa by building a bungalow to be rented out to solo-travellers, couples, artists and anyone looking for a quiet little slice of paradise to spend some time. Teachers Greg Parkes and Gabrielle Karkkainen had a lot to organise and only a few months to make this vision happen. A design needed to be agreed upon; it had to be cyclone proof and sympathetic to island architecture and the stunning surrounds of Pele. Materials needed to be sourced and a besser block mold was made, the villagers set about preparing the site and making besser blocks from coral, sand and cement. Meanwhile back in Australia, the class 10 students were busy fundraising for their 3-week-trip and found themselves washing cars, walking dogs and running raffles to make sure they could get everything done that they wanted to achieve while in Vanuatu. When the group from Shearwater touched down in Port Vila after so much hard work and preparation, they were all buzzing with excitement about what life on Pele would be like. They were welcomed at Emua Warf by the Pele locals and taken by boat to the island itself, 7 Kilometres from mainland Efate. Many of the students had never been overseas before and despite months of preparation and lessons on cultural sensitivity, Bislama, history and geography of the area, construction and building skills and marine studies, some students were apprehensive when they first set foot on Pele. They were each billeted with local families and divided into three groups; Science and marine conservation, (which involved helping a marine scientist plant reef biscuits and tag turtles); teaching games sports and arts at the island school; and being part of the building team constructing the bungalow. A roster was drawn up and the very next day they set to work immediately becoming part of their Ni-Van family and the Pele Island community. It was far from smooth sailing as none of the students were used to living an island life and many had never been away from home for such a long time. During the trip they had everything from sunstroke to infected coral cuts to tropical ulcers, some have even needed to be hospitalised. “I think they went through stages” reflects Greg Parkes “The first few days they were in a bit of shock, by week two many of them had stomach upsets and were feeling homesick and missing family and friends, in the final week nobody wanted to go back to Australia!” The bungalow was finally finished the day before the school group was due to leave. A celebration was held that night with plenty of feasting, singing and dancing. The bungalow was named in honor of the neighboring villages ‘Wara-namoa’. Since those early days of the Pele project, things between the school and their adopted island home have continued to flourish and most years a group of 30 or so students have come back to Pele. A second bungalow was constructed on the very next trip and education courses were held in tourism management, bookkeeping and first aid. The Australian students took turns holding English classes and teaching reading, games, sport and crafts to the village kids. They also made furniture, milled timber and helped around the island with anything they could, just like any other member of the village. As time went on the Pele Island community were lucky enough to secure the funding for a teacher but could only take up this offer if they had a designated school building in which to hold classes. Once again Shearwater Steiner School jumped in to help where needed and a kindergarten classroom was constructed. Community education classes were held in cleaning, cooking, health awareness and maintenance. Fast-forward to March 2015 and unfortunately Cyclone Pam came calling on Epi Island. The students and wider Mullumbimby community were devastated to hear that the people of Vanuatu were suffering at the hands of Mother Nature. Being such a remote and exposed little island, Epi and its people had nowhere to hide and the damage was considerable. The kindergarten building was destroyed and although the bungalows were untouched the people lost their source of food and water, many lost everything but the clothes they were wearing, luckily there were no casualties. The school had planned another trip in April, just a few short weeks post-cyclone but as their health and safety could not be guaranteed and the Pele people were in no state to take on extra mouths to feed, the trip had to be cancelled. Everyone involved was disappointed, after such a big planning process and many months spent raising funds for the trip, they felt helpless to do anything to help the Ni-Van people they had grown to look at as family. It took five whole days but contact was eventually made between Mullumbimby and Pele, much to the relief of the students. The island people were sick, emaciated, dehydrated and had very little rice to keep the whole community fed. They needed help urgently so the decision was made to send the money that would have been used for construction in the April trip. Several of the senior girls, who had been on the Pele project when they were in class 10, put together a fundraising event and concert. A container was filled high with food, water, clothing and building materials donated by the community. The girls flew to Port Vila to track down the container and go through the process of getting it released from customs. The goods then needed to be transported over to the other side of the island, taken by boat to Pele and the precious cargo delivered to the people who were most in need, an amazing undertaking for 17 year-old women from a small country town. They spent weeks distributing the donations equally to the 150-odd people of the island and continued to keep the school community informed on progress in Vanuatu. The Pele people are slowly recovering from their encounter with Pam. The next trip is planned to take place in April 2016 and the priority will be to re-build the kindergarten building. Future plans are also in place to provide a women’s centre, a project driven by an ex-student who participated in one of the first school trips to Pele and is now a midwife living on the island and married to one of the young local men. The women’s centre will provide education on women’s health, be a safe-haven for victims of domestic violence and will have birthing facilities. There are also plans to have Pele youngsters come to Shearwater to complete their education and several of the local men have already come to the school to do seasonal work on the school’s extensive vegetable gardens. The school’s philosophy has always been based learning practically, in a real-life way and giving back to the community. As far as the Pele Island program is concerned everyone’s a winner! When they do arrive home from their adventure, the parents of the class 10 students comment that their kids seem like different people. They seem more mature, independent, more helpful, and more appreciative of all they have with an even stronger sense of helping humanity. Their time on Pele Island and their work as part of the program is something these young people tend to take with them as they go out into the world and it somewhat shapes the adults they become and the lives they lead after school. Shearwater and Pele have formed a life-long bond that is sure to continue to benefit all involved for many years to come.

As written for Island Life Magazine

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