Cook Islands culture

When Annie saw the description of Global Volunteers’ Cook Islands program, she suspected it might be precisely the type of “once-in-a-lifetime” destination for her wife, Toby’s, 70th birthday. Together, they decided that celebrating Toby’s milestone birthday in service to others would be unforgettable and rewarding. Read Toby’s story here!

By Toby S., First-time Cook Islands volunteer

For me, turning 70 was quite an emotional milestone. Having survived cancer twice, I was living in sheer gratitude for each day, and just wanted to give back. I knew I didn’t want a big party and my bucket list of travel destinations wasn’t calling to me. I’ve never been big on presents but, knew I had one big present to give… ME!

At a very early age growing up in a Jewish family, I was exposed to the tradition of Tzedakah (meaning to give charity and do right for others and share). I grew up with the philosophy, either giving time, service, or money. This theory was instilled in me early, and, as a special education teacher K-12 for 33 years, I had continued to implement this tradition throughout my teaching years.

Toby and Annie said serving in the Cook Islands met their criteria for English-speaking culture, beaches, and warm weather.


So after returning home from a month’s trip to Asia in 2017, my wife, Annie, shared an interesting article about a volunteer program offered by Global Volunteers. We talked about the reality of actually doing it and, seeing as it met my criteria for an English-speaking country, beaches, and warm weather. Bingo! We’d found it. Rarotonga, a beautiful island in the South Pacific!

I had retired in 2005 so the thought of getting back into the classroom piqued my interest. Excited about our trip, we went to the dollar store and filled a suitcase with pencils, erasers, glue sticks, and hundreds of school supplies. We were ready to go!

 “I believe we all have a special “gift”. For me, it was teaching…without sounding ego-driven or conceited, all my skills, talents, and teaching tools took over”.  -Toby 

Upon our arrival in the Cook Islands, we met our six teammates. The diversity of the team, ages, personalities, and consciousness couldn’t have been better, I can’t remember laughing so hard or so much with strangers so soon. Our team leaders, James and Debi, were great at offering us guidance, local culture, support, humor, and friendship. We quickly became a family!

Cook Islands, Global Volunteers.

Toby’s and Annie’s team pose for a photo at the shore of Global Volunteers’ island lodging. “We became a family,” they said.

Every morning, we caught the Cook Island bus to school. Three of us taught at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. I was assigned to the first-grade class, and Annie taught second grade. The first day was a bit overwhelming for both of us. It was clear they needed SO much help, especially in the ways of discipline and organizational skills. Where and how to start?!

Fortunately, the sister who taught my class was open, willing, and receptive – allowing me to jump in and help in any way, shape, or form. I believe we all have a special “gift.” For me, it was teaching. Without sounding ego driven or conceded, all my skills, talents, and teaching tools took over. Within three days, I had her class under control, a behavior modification reward system implemented, learning centers and skill groups organized. Children for the first time were independently writing their names, letters, numbers, and some even reading. Although I’d set some fairly strict rules and requirements, the children bonded to me like glue and were eager to exhibit good behavior to win points. The love shared was mutual – I fell in love with each and every one of them!

Every day in the staff lunchroom, we were presented with an array of local foods offered by the teachers. Cultural exchanges, conversations, experiences, and ideas were also shared. The last day at school was extremely emotional. We were showered with flowers, gifts, letters from the kids, a beautiful luncheon, and lifetime memories. I shared with my students that serving in the Cook Islands was my birthday present to myself, in saying that I burst into tears as I expressed this was the best birthday I’d ever had.

“Ko to’ou raurau Ko toku raurau – Ka akaora te iti tangata.
Your basket and my basket . . . Will sustain the nation”.
– Unknown

All in all, I’d say this volunteer experience went way beyond my expectations. The evening meals in the local restaurants, walking to the night markets, weekends exploring the Island, plus the adorable children. It has filled my heart and “Tzedakah bowl” with such love, pride, awareness, and joy and I look forward to my next adventure… possibly Greece, with its beautiful beaches and warm climate.

“Thank Global Volunteers for your ongoing service and commitment around the world!”

These Cook Islands volunteering stories may also be of interest:

New Zealander Chooses Volunteering to Explore Cook Islands Culture

Development Projects Expand Volunteers’ Choices in the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands:  The Best Volunteer Gig in the World

For more ideas on island volunteering, read on here. 



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