Global Volunteers’ 177th volunteer team in the Cook Islands was the first to return after COVID. The team included a teacher, military veteran, former World Bank employee, birdwatcher, three-time Cook Islands volunteer, and a college librarian and grandmother who brought her eleven-year-old grandson. They brought oceans of experience and passion to change the world, sometimes one child at a time.
First Global Volunteers Team Returns to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands
Global Volunteer Deborah Falk sat at a picnic table in the rising light of the morning, watching the waves break over the coral–peppered beach where she and her service program team, “Vaka 177,” were staying at a seaside hotel right on the beach. “Vaka” is a canoe or boat that Cook Islanders sail, and 177 stands for Deborah’s group being the 177th Global Volunteers team to serve on the Cook Islands.
There was such a variety of gorgeous swirling blue spread out before Deborah – mesmerizing ocean waves. She realized it was the perfect metaphor for Vaka 177, the very first team to serve in the Cook Islands since the program was paused due to COVID.
Excerpts from Vaka 177 Cook Islands Team Journal by Volunteer Deborah Falk
”No ocean has a static variety of waves, nor do we as teachers and volunteers. We all come from different places in the moana. Some have deep experience at volunteering to navigate the waters. Some are skilled at cleaning up the flotsam and jetsam of a disorganized ocean of books. Some work with teaching young ‘sailors.’
All of us want to and strive to ride those waves competently. And then there’s the youngest eleven-year-old seafaring volunteer amongst us, who rides every crest, whether it be trying out the ukulele or joining in an ocean swimming lesson with the students at Apii Takitumu, Apii Te Uki Ou, and St. Joseph’s schools.”
Every single one of these waves reach the shore, with whatever path they take to the coral or the sand. Have you every heard anyone say, “Wow, that’s a really ugly ocean?” It’s the incongruent and infinite differences that make the moana so beautiful. All those who serve with Global Volunteers are waves – retirees, students, tradespeople, and others with unique backgrounds, talents, and skillsets who work to nourish children; teach, and mentor youth; and respond to needs wherever we’re invited to serve, including the Cook Islands.
Volunteers Apply Broad Range of Experience to Island Service Programs
The staffs, principals, teachers, and especially the students at Apii Takitumu, Apii Te Uki Ou, and St. Joseph’s schools were ecstatic to have Global Volunteers back on campus again after such a long absence. The volunteers worked with students, supporting literacy and numeracy programs. The service program projects are critical because there are so many students that do not have enough one-on-one time, which is necessary for them to fully grasp the lessons being taught. Students who need extra help are able to receive it when volunteers are present to assist.
Deborah is a retired professor of ESL (English as a Second Language), linguistics, and cultural diversity. She found the unique bilingual environment of Cook Island students fascinating. Preserving a language with very small range, while acknowledging the necessity of English proficiency, is a concern Cook Islanders share with other islands in the world. The cultural trade between volunteers learning Māori words and phrases from students, and helping them with English is a gift exchange that will last forever. As an avid conservationist and bird lover, Deborah and other volunteers also spent time clearing shrubbery and foliage growth at the Takitimu Conservation Area, which provides safe breeding ground for the endangered Rarotongan flycatcher or Kakerori birds.
Volunteer Martin Norman retired from the World Bank and has been traveling around the world to new countries. He decided to give back and volunteer while in the Cook Islands. Martin worked with students at St. Joseph’s and taught them about things they had never learned previously, such as snowflakes. “They seemed gratified to have Global Volunteers back, and none more than the children themselves.” Martin said. “For us, it was very special to be a part of this unique team, unique in terms of skills and experience, and in terms of timing, being the first group back.”
This service program was Meredith Eggert’s third Global Volunteers experience in the Cook Islands. Because of this, she has seen young kids she has worked with in the past thriving as teenagers, speaking in front of the school, and helping other students; and past student aides becoming teachers.
“To say this place has stolen my heart is an understatement. I also know I will have the joy of seeing the island again. This place has changed my life in more ways than I could possibly explain.”Meredith Eggert, Three-Time Cook Islands Volunteer
Family Volunteering Provides Once in a Lifetime Bonding
Michele “Mike” Fitzsimmons is a retired college librarian who brought her eleven-year-old grandson Chandler “Tres” Tufts as her volunteering companion. She utilized her library experience as she and Tres teamed up with Deborah Falk to organize books, clean up, and make the library operational at Apii Takitumu school. Tres loved volunteering at the schools during the week and playing with local children on the weekends. He helped a group of students learn about airplanes and together they drew different models as an activity.
Mike and her grandson bonded over the many free time activities available in the Cook Islands including swimming, mud buggy-ing, turtle tours, and an island night. But as much as he enjoyed the leisure time, Tres was even more excited about volunteering. “He couldn’t wait until Monday came,” said Mike. At the end of each long weekday, as the adult volunteers looked forward to a little evening relaxation time, Tres would exclaim, “I can’t believe it’s going to be so long until tomorrow!”
I Made a Difference to That One
Deborah Falk and Tres also swam with turtles during their free time. Deborah recollected, “Looking into the eyes of those turtles was other-worldly. One of our funniest experiences was when I saw a bright blue starfish kind of plastered to a large coral structure. I said, ‘either some child dropped a bright blue starfish stuffy off the side of the one those cruise boats and it got stuck to this reef, or this is the most amazing starfish I’ve ever seen.’ After Tres found several other of the royal blue starfish, we knew it was the latter!”
One, two, or even three weeks might seem like far too short a time to have a significant impact on the enormity of support needed in the Cook Islands.
“It reminds me of the story of the Starfish Thrower, where the elder man asks the younger one what difference he can possibly make, tossing starfish, one by one, back into the ocean before the rising sun can dry them out. We know the answer, ‘It made a difference to that one.’ Thus, my frustration at what can’t be accomplished is tempered by what can be. I think we can be confident our little starfish here in the Cook Islands will remember for a long time how we made them feel.”Deborah Falk
Kia hora te Marino
Kia whakapapa pounamu te moana
Kua tere ai te karohirohi
I mua i tou huarahi
May the calm be widespread
May the ocean glisten as greenstone
May the shimmer of light
Forever dance across your pathway.
You can volunteer in the Cook Islands this year or next year. Service programs begin nearly every month during 2023 and 2024. Serve for one, two, or three weeks, and we can help you extend for longer as well.
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