Early this year, Grammarian Emelia participated in Albury Rotary Club’s Paying it Forward Fiji 2022, travelling to the South Pacific-based country for an eye-opening volunteering experience. The Year 10 student has written this reflection on her time and what she learnt from her experience during her stay in a Fijian village.
Paying it Forward Fiji 2022, organised, and run by ‘The Albury Rotary Club’, was not only beautiful but incredibly eye opening. The trip lasted two weeks (28 March to 6 April) and aimed to help a Fijian village called Nalauwaki. Nalauwaki needed as much help as it could get after the coronavirus pandemic stopped the island from being able to bring in income via tourism. Tourism was, and remains, Nalauwaki’s only source of stable income. Due to COVID-19, the village had to resort to selling its natural resources, like coconuts, kava, and pineapples; often making little to no profit.
I was initially told about the trip by a close friend, Georgie, who encouraged me to apply. Once I had checked Rotary’s website and Facebook, I begged my parents – with very little information and very high hopes – to let me apply. Luckily, I got accepted and six months later, I joined Georgie and fifteen other students, of all ages from all around the country, in Fiji.
Reflecting now, I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to be a part of what was a life-changing experience.
What appealed to me most about Paying it Forward Fiji 2022 was that it gave students, who wouldn’t usually have the opportunity, a chance to help – to pay it forward. Growing up, my mum Rosie has always been contributing to communities in one way or another. She is currently the Executive Officer at Tomorrow Today, an organisation which aims to break the cycle of poverty within families by helping children get to school and providing parents with support. Cliché as it is, watching Mum help so many people growing up made me want to do the same. So, when I applied for Paying it Forward Fiji 2022 I did so to help and connect with those who needed it most. The trip, aside from being an incredible cultural experience, also allowed me to reflect and be deeply grateful for things I would usually take for granted. Furthermore, Fiji helped me to recognise my privilege and do good with it.
Prior to visiting the village, all fifteen of us raised funds, which I did by selling homemade tomato relish – Quetta, with all the money we raised going towards the recovery of the village. Alongside this, we helped clear an area to build the kindergarten playground, selling/bringing over clothes to provide the Fijians with cheap and accessible clothing whilst raising money for the kindergarten. Overall, we raised $2,200 for the kindergarten, donated an estimated 420kg of clothes and sanitary products to the village and spent around $2,000 within the Fijian community.
The most challenging part of the trip wasn’t the work but the language and cultural barriers we faced; particularly because none of us spoke any Fijian prior to the trip. Like any overseas trips there were times when I missed my bed, my family and Australian food, however, boarding at Melbourne Girls Grammar had conveniently prepared me for all these things. In many ways it was incredible that I was able to authentically experience how the people of Fiji lived, leaving me with a better understanding of the Fijian lifestyle. It was a really confronting trip but the support and gratitude from the village made it both a heart-warming and gratifying experience.
I’ve always been interested in travel, a trait I likely inherited from mum and dad, who have both travelled widely. Fiji was my first real experience of travel, reminding me the world is much bigger and far more diverse than just Australia. Travel excited and still excites me because of my eagerness to learn. The experience taught me about Fijian culture, living standards and language; giving me the opportunity to try traditional foods and drinks like kava, tang, and yams. Whilst in Nalauwaki, to truly experience how Fijians live, I stayed with a host family, who by the end of the trip I was devastated to leave. Having formed close friendships with both Fijians and other Australians on the trip made it challenging to say goodbye.
Reflecting on how special the trip really was, my favourite part was being able to experience Fiji from a Fijians perspective, rather than a just as a tourist, and I’m so glad I did as they’re some of the kindest, happiest people I’ve met.
In the future, I hope to get involved in another program like ‘Paying it Forward’ and I encourage others who have the opportunity to do the same. The experience taught me about friendship, privilege, gratitude, selflessness, culture, and travel. The latter two, I hope to continue to experience and learn about through an exchange. Although in the future I want to go into publishing or journalism, this trip unearthed my passion for travel and charity work; something which I hope to include in my writing or future career. Before then, I strive to spend a little time each day practicing gratitude and keeping in touch with those who helped me find it.
Nalauwaki and many Fijian villages like it are still struggling. Most living well below the poverty line, many unable to afford education, clothes, and food and many more homeless. Visit both Rotary Australia’s and Tomorrow Today’s donation pages. Aside from donating, you can also get involved in your local Rotary Club, support and assist with Rotary sausage sizzles and spread the word about both organisations.
My biggest takeaway from the trip and my biggest recommendation for those who want to help was spoken to me by the organiser of Paying it Forward, Kelly Kadaoui, who told me, ‘On average every human being has 37 touchpoints and 16 interactions per day, so make them count. Make them positive interactions, make someone’s day, be the person who lets the mother with a crying baby go in front of you at the supermarket, be the person who smiles at strangers walking down the street. When you can help people, help people and when you can be kind, be kind.’ That’s what Paying it Forward is all about.