Alumna Carol McNertney’s “second act” began with her students’ suggestion to expand her horizons. She writes how a promise to them led her on a true journey of the “heart” in her retirement – first to Montana, then to the Cook Islands.
By Carol McNertney, Global Volunteers Alumna
Everyone who commits to volunteering does so for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are very personal. Mine began with a promise. For most of my teaching career, I taught in a Title I school in Northern Virginia, a large suburb of Washington, D.C. Title I schools receive federal funds based upon highly concentrated levels of poverty. In addition, most of my students were second language learners. They had already faced a number of challenges. Some of their personal journeys included leaving behind loved ones and family members, immigration experiences, and families seeking refuge from war torn nations. I often wondered where their resilience came from, and what it must be like to struggle with learning a new language, while at the same time navigating our educational system and government policies.
“When I announced my plans to retire, one of my students asked what I was going to do when I left. Good question. This student’s question led to a discussion that included suggestions from the class on what my new life should include. Their number one suggestion? Travel.“Carol McNertney
When I announced my plans to retire, one of my students asked what I was going to do when I left. Good question. This student’s question led to a discussion that included suggestions from the class on what my new life should include. Their number one suggestion? TRAVEL. I told the class that I had limited international travel experience, that I was looking for something different, and so I needed their advice. I asked them what it was like to leave their comfort zone of loved ones, and find themselves totally immersed in a new culture. How did they learn to adapt to a new language, and as early adolescents, how did they balance preserving the traditions and cultural beliefs of their first home with their new, often overwhelming environment? At the end of our discussion, I made them a promise. I pledged that I would take with me all that I had learned from them and switch roles. I would become a student again. I would somehow learn to step out of my own comfort zone, and seek out new experiences that would allow me to take the lessons that they had taught me and that I kept in my personal teaching toolbox. I would complete my TEFL certification, and continue learning outside the walls of the classroom. I had no idea at that time (2014) how I was going to keep my promise.
Fortunately, a much younger colleague of mine reminded me that several years prior to my discussions with my students, she had completed a summer volunteer program and that we had spent an afternoon reviewing her pictures. I needed an organization that encouraged multi-generational settings. It was then that I first learned about Global Volunteers. I searched the internet and found the Global Volunteers’ website. The first images that I clicked on included the Cook Islands program. Wow! I remember thinking, you are dreaming. I didn’t think I could handle such a long flight. I did, however, find myself returning in my mind, again and again, to those students on Rarotonga. That was 8 years ago.
As my retirement date began to get closer, I stepped up my plans to keep my promise. I was ready. As life would have it, upon retirement, I was faced with unexpected health issues, an aging parent, and the realizations that come with adjusting to a newly fixed income. My plans would need to change…as plans often do. I was disheartened when I realized I would have to postpone (or possibly cancel) my plans. Yet, the islands, I believe, kept calling.
Decisions and Research
My decision to join Global Volunteers was based upon a combination of research, desire to find a good personal match, and an organization that was ethical, supportive of its volunteers, and experienced. I spent a lot of time reading about volunteering abroad, especially for seniors and retirees. I also wanted the opportunity to work with a multi-generational group of team members, and the opportunity to become immersed with the local culture and people. I went through a process that I’m sure many others follow. I made a wish list of what I thought was important. I was drawn to Global Volunteers specifically due to their Philosophy of Service, Mission, and reputation. They have been around for a long time, recently celebrating 35 years of service. They must know what they are doing, I thought! And they definitely do.
“I was drawn to Global Volunteers specifically due to their Philosophy of Service, Mission, and reputation. They have been around for a long time, recently celebrating 35 years of service. They must know what they are doing, I thought! And they definitely do.”Carol McNertney
Becoming convinced that I had found a way to fulfill my promise, I sat down with my list and made the call. The office staff was very patient and helpful. I talked with one of the Volunteer Coordinators and explained what I was looking for; she was very helpful and informative. Still hesitant about traveling the distance to the South Pacific, she described other programs that might interest me. Due to her guidance, I thought I would first try out the program by volunteering for a shorter period of time within the United States. My first Global Volunteers trip took me to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana in 2013, a program I highly recommend. That first Global Volunteer experience answered all my questions. I was impressed with a wealth of preparation materials, including a Volunteer Manual and Conversational English Teaching Guide (a reminder resource for former teachers, and a great informational manual for those who had little to no prior teaching experience). I was also pleasantly surprised by the follow-up contacts seeking feedback from Global Volunteers participants. Most importantly, I learned from my experience in Montana that as a Global Volunteer, I would be supported, guided, and well prepared for any future adventures. I began focusing on the Cook Islands.
Becoming a “Student” on Rarotonga
What did I know about the islands? I soon discovered, not much! My only reference was that I loved watching the traditional Haka performed before a rugby match. That was it. How naive! I had a lot of reading to do. All part of an introvert’s process, I began reading about the Maori culture. I watched shows that are related to the South Pacific. I even watched videos and found myself grinning from ear to ear as both children and adults performed music, dances, and language lessons. Prior to my arrival on Rarotonga, I took a side trip to Aukland, New Zealand, where I visited the Maritime Museum and the National War Memorial Museum, both of which had outstanding artifacts and historical information. I wanted to gain a sense of the history of the people. What an eye-opening adventure!
I departed Aukland and was ready to meet the locals on Rarotonga. Soon I was introduced to our Team Leaders, James Puati, and his daughter Samantha Ellison. Starting with a breakfast at a local establishment, I met one of my team partners. I was so happy to hear James reiterate the importance of the Global Volunteers mission statements, as he reviewed critical understandings that volunteers needed to know.
“One would be hard-pressed to find a more dedicated, committed, and passionate group of team leaders. Not only are you provided with meaningful advice, great conversation, and plenty of opportunities to become immersed in the local culture, you are given the chance to become part of a family.”Carol McNertney
One would be hard-pressed to find a more dedicated, committed, and passionate group of team leaders. Not only are you provided with meaningful advice, great conversation, and plenty of opportunities to become immersed in the local culture, you are given the chance to become part of a family. Another hidden treasure, is James’ wife, Debi, who played an integral role in establishing a successful, highly respected and critical partnership between the people on the islands and the Global Volunteers organization. Their combined insights and depth of knowledge provided tips, clarifications, and expertise not only related to the actual work involved, but advice on how to navigate the island, including the Cook Islands bus, our method of transportation to and from our work sites. In addition, they shared recommendations on local activities and places of interest. They pointed me in the right direction as I soon found my favorite “go to place” to spend time with community members at a local pub! Their support was invaluable, and I found myself very comfortable with sharing reflections, asking questions, and following their guidance. And if that isn’t enough, they take good care of each individual volunteer, especially when it was time for dinner. Home-cooked meals were provided each day, balanced by frequent evening meals at local restaurants in ideal island settings. The food was amazing! I never thought I enjoyed eating fish until I tried Samantha’s broadbill (swordfish) and fish curry. Another lesson learned.
Teaching at Apii Nikao
Following the Global Volunteers framework, my team partners and I began and ended each day with a morning message, review of the day’s events, and a reflection piece that contributed to our Team Vaka’s journal. On our first day of volunteering, I was assigned to Apii Nikao school to assist the staff members working with the oldest students. Apii Nikao is a bilingual Maori/English school and a relatively new partner to welcome Global Volunteers into their building. It was important to me to do a good job for the staff members, as well as a commitment to being a responsible representative for Global Volunteers. When I heard that I was assigned to work with the older, adolescent students, I could have jumped for joy right there and then.
“I now refer to my first week as my days of building trust and relationships. I assisted individuals and small groups with their writing, circulated among the mixed group of learners, focusing on math and English. I also worked one-on-one with a shy, twelve-year-old boy to strengthen his reading skills.”Carol McNertney
After receiving a warm and inviting welcome by the school’s principal, we were introduced to the students. I was thrilled, but a little anxious, as it had been five years since I entered a school building, let alone an energetic classroom setting. I soon realized that the students were just as nervous as I was, and we spent our first days watching and mingling with each other. My first day at the school was called Maori Day, where the Maori language was taught, cultural beliefs were emphasized, and music class included how to play the ukulele!
I now refer to my first week as my days of building trust and relationships. I assisted individuals and small groups with their writing, circulated among the mixed group of learners, focusing on math and English. I also worked one-on-one with a shy, twelve year old boy to strengthen his reading skills. I answered their questions about where I was from and “what was I doing here”. With guidance from our team leaders, I soon realized that I needed to jump in and become a part of the school’s culture. As trust and understanding grew, I was asked by the staff if I would be willing to teach two sections of English for students who required additional support during my second week. I prepared my lessons, and as luck would have it, I set off to be on time to catch the bus to the school in one of the few downpours during my entire stay! Would my teaching charts be drenched by the rain? They survived and upon my arrival, I began putting up my lesson materials. One of the teachers began by asking, “You are ready to teach? You are prepared?” I responded, “Yes. I am ready!” And together the students and I embarked on a journey in which my passion for teaching collided with an eager group of learners whose thirst for knowledge was insatiable.
My Lessons Continue
My last day as a Global Volunteer was the most heartwarming experience I had ever encountered. We attended a school assembly where students provided an outstanding performance that included traditional Maori dancing and songs. I was presented with an ‘ei katu, a flower headpiece that was made by one of the teachers I had grown to admire and respect. I was also given a school shirt which I immediately put on over my dress. We returned to our daily setting and gathered together for a final farewell. Three students were asked to speak. At the end of one student’s message of gratitude, she gathered her courage and announced with a giggle, “And we hope you miss your plane so you will come back!” It is true what they say about volunteering abroad. It is life-changing.
“It is true what they say about volunteering abroad. It is life-changing. ”Carol McNertney
I wanted to go back to the local pub which held a weekly Wednesday Karaoke night for locals who sang both Maori and English favorites. No…I’m not a singer! I wanted to return because I loved the atmosphere at the Cook Islands Game Fishing Club and after spending time with a wonderful group of people, I returned the next night and the night after that! I can’t imagine a better way to end my first visit to Rarotonga. Those nights reminded me of a conversation I had a couple years ago with my dad’s friend, a former World War II POW. His words followed me to the Cook Islands and back home as I’m going through my pictures and memories. He told me life is all about the connections you make with the people you meet. They’re important. They matter. And the older you get, the more you realize that it is those connections which give your life meaning. It’s what makes us all human.
“During one conversation with a local community member, I was asked what I thought about my time on Rarotonga. I couldn’t find the right words. Something in the air was far different than any of the islands in the Caribbean I had visited. Something far different than any other place I had visited.”Carol McNertney
During one conversation with a local community member, I was asked what I thought about my time on Rarotonga. I couldn’t find the right words. Something in the air was far different than any of the islands in the Caribbean I had visited. Something far different than any other place I had visited. From the ladies at the Food Box Takeaway near Wigmores that I met when I first arrived, to the food that flowed from one feast to another at the Fishing Club, the music, the Maori way to say hello, the Punanga Nui Saturday Market, and, most importantly, those students at Apii Nikao, I was at a loss for words. I could not articulate the unique feelings I had experienced during my stay on Rarotonga. He listened carefully with a quizzical look on his face.
Then he turned and said to me, “Carol, it is HEART.” I couldn’t agree more.
So thank you, everyone, for helping me fulfill a promise I made several years ago. I appreciate the continuing support and guidance provided by the Global Volunteers staff and the Cook Islands team leaders. I cherish the time I spent with the students and staff at Apii Nikao and will always be grateful to them for leading me to moments of self-discovery. And to the people of the Cook Islands, I will always be grateful for your kindness, laughter, willingness to share insights about the Maori culture, and warm welcome.
Until we meet again… MEITAKI MAATA
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