Friday, June 15, 2012

Till We Meet Again

I've been trying to think of a way to adequately explain what has happened over the last two weeks without going into more detail that is appropriate for a blog setting, so here goes nothing.

On Monday, June 4th, there was an "incident", as HELP International has chosen to call it. One of my nearest and dearest friends on the trip with me was attacked by 3 Fijian men while walking home alone from the internet cafe just a few minutes walk from our house. Although there are lots of little details associated with exactly how and what happened, I don't feel entirely comfortable sharing those. A fellow participant and their mother made the decision to go to abc news in Salt Lake, Utah, and talk to them about what happened. A few stories (although with some minor inaccuracies) were released, so I'll post the links to the first one that came about. If you'd care to hear more detail, feel free to check here:

There are a few more articles on that website that should be easy to link to, as well as an article on the Deseret News and KSL. You should be able to find those via Google.

Well the next couple of days after the attack are a large blur, we moved houses (more to come about that situation) and tried to get back to our projects when we had the time between the move. My friend who was attacked returned home safely within the week. I miss her and love her so much.

We had to move out of our house the Tuesday following the attack, but did not have anywhere to move to. The bishop, his wife, and a few of the guys from our local ward at church showed up to help us move all of our belongings into the nursery of the church. That night we stayed at a local place called the SeaBreeze Hotel. Never in my life did I imagine that I would be so thrilled by a real mattress and air conditioning! I was legitimately excited to be in the hotel, even though it was so different than hotels that I'm used to. To sum it up without a picture, I've stayed in a Motel 6 that quite possibly outshines the good ole SeaBreeze.

The next morning, we woke up to the news that another one of the volunteers had fallen out of a tree earlier that morning while watching the sunrise. Not going to lie- none of us could even comprehend that one. We nervous laughed and looked confused while we heard that story. She is slowly but surely recovering and will be returning home soon.

The FBI arrived in Lautoka that day to investigate the case, so HELP International asked us to head to another part of the island for the day. We went to VoliVoli Beach Resort in RakiRaki, which I've blogged about a bit before. It was nice to take a day to relax a bit, as we were all quite shaken by the last couple of days. We slept there for the night, and the next day woke up and headed back to Lautoka. Perhaps not so surprisingly, we were still homeless that night. Guess where we slept? The church! The bishop and his wife were so incredibly kind to us. They showed up to the church to help us drag beds into the primary room that we'd call home for the night. We were able to set up shop there, and I was very grateful to have lots of time that day to speak with my parents and discuss the current situation. The following day we were able to find a house in Lautoka and move in immediately, once again with the incredible help of the bishop, his wife, and some of the men in the ward. I am certain that without the help and love of the bishop and other church members, we as a group would not have gotten through everything as well as we did.

The US Embassy and HELP International feel that it is safe for the volunteers to be in Fiji, however the BYU International Security office does not agree and asked their matriculated interns to return home. Because I was not an official intern, I was left to make my own decision in regards to staying or leaving. I spent more time in prayer during that last week than I had spent praying in a long time. Although it is sad to say that it was because of the situation I was in, it was such a great feeling to be closer to the spirit again. After very careful consideration of all of the facts, as well as my feelings and promptings, my parents and I agreed that it would be best for me to return home. I was and am heartbroken to have left Fiji, my projects, my friends, and the incredible life I was leading there. Through all of this, I keep praying that this is one of those situations where God closes a door, but opens a window. That being said, I am comfortable with my decision to have returned home and look forward to being able to continue my projects from the United States.

This is where you come in! As you know, I had been working with the Sunshine Special School in Lautoka, Fiji. They are lacking the materials that they need to teach their students how to read, and I would love to change that. I'll be working for the next couple of months to write letters to companies and libraries and hopefully find those who would be willing to donate supplies and books to this school. If you are someone, or know someone, or even someone who knows someone who knows someone who would be interested in helping, PLEASE let me know! I will be figuring out the exact details this next week in terms of what specifically I'd be looking for, and will let you know then.

Until that post comes, your thoughts and prayers for those who have suffered because of this situation would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Friday, June 1, 2012

C'est la Vie!

Bula! So I think this week I'll organize things into my top 4 most interesting/exciting/heartbreaking/generally-noteworthy moments. I recognize that 4 is a weird number to choose.. I started with 10 but I wrote more than I was expecting to so I kept it at 4. Y'welcome.

1. I finally got started on my literacy project with the Sunshine Special School. On Monday I went with Candice to visit the school and gather more information to begin my project. They gave me a list of all of the students enrolled, with the name of their disability listed next to it. We were shocked to see the different reasons the children are considered "special." Probably the most shocking disability listed is ADHD... undiagnosed. Parents can pretty much decide that their children are too hyper for normal school, and sign them up for this school! After visiting a couple of the classrooms we noticed that one of the little boys is in the school because of juvenile arthritis. He does not struggle academically---he's 2 full grade levels above his class mates---but they still feel that he requires this attention. It was heartbreaking to see him surrounded by peers with more extreme learning disabilities.

I am really excited to get started on this project. The children at the school are so sweet and tender. They are so shy and excited to see us! One of my favorite part is the way they look down and blush and giggle when I say hi to them. I really cannot wait until they know my name and are more comfortable talking with me! I will be working with kids with 3 different issues: reading/comprehension, phonics, and blending. I'll be taking the kids in pairs, and sometimes individually, and workings with them in 30 minute blocks on whatever their struggle is. I've struggled a lot  with feeling like I am qualified to work with these kids, but after talking with Shelley about it she said something that I've decided I need to make my mantra for the project. She said that the biggest thing to remember is to love the kids, because chances are they won't learn everything they could possibly need to know from me. So if the best I do is love them and make an ounce of improvement, it was a success! It was such a helpful thought to realize that although I may not sky rocket their reading abilities, I will make a change in their lives.

2. I organized the library at the Sunshine Special School! For the second half of this week I didn't have an excess of work, so I noticed after touring the school that the library could use some help. I spent Wednesday and Thursday going through the books and putting them where they belonged. It was nice to see the space become more clear and organized, and I had the best time reading some of my favorite books (special shout out to one of my favs- Boney Legs)! I couldn't help but think about my days at good ole Patton, and the fab library there. One of my favorite times at school was our bi-weekly library trip! I loved wandering a few rows over to the advanced books and imagining the day that I could pick any book in the whole dang place and read it. I never realized how lucky I was to be at a school with rows of books, and teachers who had the resources and time to help every child read. The Sunshine Special School library consists of one wall- 4 shelves divided into 3 sections. And each shelf is about 3/4 full. I'm hoping to start a book drive of some sort for their school so that these kids can have more books. It's an overwhelming idea when I think about how much work it will entail, but one wall of books just does not cut it for a school full of children---it's probably a great indicator of the literacy levels of the school.

3. They found the cord for the piano at church! They have an electronic piano, the same one that is in the Relief Society room at home, in their chapel, but they haven't been able to find the cord pretty much since they got it, which I'm pretty sure is around 5 years ago. Once they found out that I can play, they set out to find a cord to replace it... and stumbled across an old radio cord that fits. It officially plugs in and works, so, naturally, I was the ward pianist on Sunday! There is a great picture that one of the girls took of me when I was playing...there were kids all around me! They stood and stared and stared and stared up until the meeting started and the moms told them to sit down. And even then, during each hymn I had at least one munchkin getting as close as they could to stare. They had a good time flipping the page to any page in the book for my prelude and seeing if I could play it, and every single child requested I Am A Child of God at least once. One of the most tender moments happened when one of the older boys (around age 9... they're always the most embarrassed to be seen talking to the white girls) stood right next to me so that his whole body was pressing up against mine and was quietly singing the song I was playing at the time. I couldn't stop myself from tearing up listening to him almost breathe out the words to I Stand All Amazed. I'm so blessed to play the piano. I feel like I spend so much time at home complaining about having to play, but it was beautiful to get a chance to think about how wonderful music is, and how lucky I have been to take lessons and be able to play at the drop of a hat for anyone who needs it.

Just a quick little story about music at church on Sunday. Last week the Bishop asked if we would be willing to do the special number during Sacrament meeting this last Sunday that we just had and of course we said yes! We practiced on Saturday afternoon and evening to sing A Child's Prayer. It was simple and we didn't put too much time into it, but we were totally excited. The Bishop announced the program for the day and for the special number he announced the primary choir would be singing..... they forgot about us. Womp Womp. So we're singing next week. Also they asked me to speak... yikes.

4. I finally got a new mattress!!!!!!!!!!!!!! No, that many exclamation points does not cover my excitement.  Allow me to explain the bed situation here. The beds are all bunk beds. Pure wood, and the support for the actual mattress is wood slats. Of all different shapes and sizes. The mattress is foam. As in a 3 inch foam slab... nothing else. Just a little foam hunk. I'm guessing you can figure out how LUXURIOUS the beds are after pressing a 3 inch foam mat into wood slats every night. I feel like I can lay on my back and figure out every single bump and grain of the wood using my back skin through the foam, it's that uncomfortable. So... Nikki and I splurged on Thursday and got mattresses. Granted they're still foam slabs, but we sprung for the 5-ish inch pads that we stacked on top of the 3 inch ones, that will function as more of a filler for the spaces between the wood. I slept like a rock last night! Also, we went to this restaurant in town called BBQ Chicken before our mattress extravaganza... it was divine. I had chicken without bones in it for the first time since I got here! WOO! Oh, and one last note that I'll tack on as an addendum to number four... we're obsessed with The Vampire Diaries. We watch about 2 episodes a night... 3 if it leaves us on a really intense cliff hanger after 2 episodes. It's so fun to all sit down after dinner and chores and watch them!

I think if you had told me a few months ago that I would be living in Fiji, excited about foam mattresses and chicken without bones and spending my free moments pondering ways to bring more books into the library of a special education school, I would not have believed you. But alas, here I am. And I'm LOVING it. C'est la vie!

Friday, May 25, 2012

TimTam Slamming With the World Health Organization

Well, I'm obviously not posting as much as I was originally planning to. I need to be much much better than that.

Saturday was a day of surprises! We took a boat out on a day trip to one of the islands off the coast of Fiji for some snorkeling and sun. We had been out on the water for about 20 minutes when we realized that the dark clouds overhead weren't going anywhere and we probably wouldn't be getting any sun... it's a good thing no one checked the weather forecast before we booked the trip! Also, I must have some sort of curse because at one point on the boat ride I turned to the left, and right in my face was the butt of one of the New Zealander's on the trip. Just a face full of tush, with a pretty excessive amount of crackage hanging out the top, too. Yum. After about 30 minutes on the island, it started to rain pretty heavily which was a little sad, but it's hard to care about the rain when you're snorkeling and enjoying the water so that's what we did to pass the time! The tour docked on the island for about 3 hours (even though the brochure promised 5), and then headed back to the main island. On the way back it poured for the second half of the boat ride, and I was cold for the first time since landing in Fiji! It was great.

On Sunday we went to church and relaxed at home for the afternoon, there isn't too much to say about that. I've been trying to track down Talen Tremea, who is serving his mission here. I asked the ward missionaries about him and they said if he was on this side of the island they would meet him that night--- I'm really excited to hear about it on Sunday and see what they know! I have to find him.

In other news, we did a training with the World Health Organization this week! Tuesday and Wednesday were spent on another part of the island called RakiRaki, which supposedly has some of the best snorkeling on the island. We had the opportunity to work with the different principals and teachers in the area to address specific problems that they are having and find ways to improve them. It was a pretty eye opening experience. Hilary and I were with three men and we were supposed to discuss the topic of alcohol abuse. Although the legal age for buying alcohol is 18 here, they were telling us that literally anyone can go into the store and buy it if they say it's for their parents or friends or whoever they want! They have issues with children aged 13 drinking.. unbelievable. And on top of that, the black market is a huge thing here! Apparently every single taxi driver knows where there are black market stations so that you can buy alcohol all the time. I realized how grateful I am to live in a place where although there are issues, there are usually people working hard to ensure the safety of the nation, especially the youth. It's heartbreaking to see these kids struggle with issues that they should still be ignorant of.

Wednesday night we decided to take advantage of being in RakiRaki and stayed at the VoliVoli Beach Resort. They had some backpacker rooms that were only $15 USD a night and fit 8 people in a room, so it was perfect! Wednesday was also Tacy's birthday so we had dinner at the resort and then had the staff make a cake by stacking TimTams. Obviously we sang happy birthday to her on loop while one of the waiters danced with her.... everyone was so casual about it so I'm guessing that Fijian birthday protocol. A few of the leaders from the World Health Organization were at dinner with us, so they joined in on the TimTam slamming for dessert, which was hilarious. I feel like very few people can say they did TimTam Slams with the Fiji Leaders of the WHO. After dinner we walked out to the ocean to enjoy the rest of the evening. I have never seen so many stars in my entire life. I had a few minutes to myself and it was amazing to look out at the stars and the ocean and the incredible deep purples of the sunset and realize how happy I am, and not just a fleeting happiness, but a deep, to my core happiness. On Thursday we passed the time lounging by a gorgeous beach and pool and relaxing til our bus ride home. It was sooooooooooo nice.

Today we spent a lot more time working on project proposals and preparing for next week so that we can start getting involved with our specific projects. I'm anxious because one of my projects is helping improve the literacy at a local special education schools, but I feel very underprepared. I don't know how to teach kids to read, let alone those who require more attention than others. Hopefully I'll be able to find out more about it and follow the learning curve to figure things out! This might be a crazy week.

I am so grateful for the chance I have to be here. I was worried that it was going to be a long hard adjustment, but after the first week things are starting to be comfortable. We're always so proud of ourselves when we know where we are and where we're supposed to walk. Simple joys, right? I really have the feeling that I will be able to do something honestly life changing while I am here.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Rotahomes, Lice, and Reggae: The Fijian Adventure Begins!

Bula from Fiji! I know this post is a little late, so I'll try to sum up everything we've been doing without being too long winded. I put the pictures up on Facebook, but I'll try to put them on here too in a few days.

Day 1:
On the first day we landed at 5:30 in the morning, so the whole day is kind of a blur for everyone. We moved into our house, went to the atm and walked around the market to get shampoo and other essentials, and then hung around the house. It was more or less the eternal day because we were so tired and it went on forever! Our house is really great. There are 3 rooms with 4 girls each in them, and then the only guy on the trip sleeps out on a bed in the living room so that we all have privacy. He handles being the only guy quite well. So we fit into the house perfectly right now, but in about a month we're supposed to have a total of 27 people living in the house!!! That's right, 27. We can't really figure out how that's going to work... but it'll be an adventure! We live in Lautoka, which has turned out to be a great location. We're in pretty close proximity to most of our partners that we'll be working with and the bus drives right by our house.

Days 2 and 3:
 For those days, we helped to build a house in a neighborhood called Koroipita, which is build in connection with the Rotahomes project. It was pretty slow moving because they only use  nails and hammers to build. The only legitimate power tool they had was a saw for cutting all of the wood. It was eye opening to see exactly how much labor goes into each and every one of the homes.

This concept is seriously so amazing. This man named Peter Drysdale started this concept of building homes that would be resistant to the cyclones that come through Fiji and ruin all of the homes. They started to build them on a much larger scale, which eventually yielded to figuring out the social issues associated with this kind of neighborhood. For $1 a day, these people live in the cyclone resistant homes and also have electricity, water, classes, and school included. It's targeted for low income families, and the waiting list to live there is over 400 families! We went to a dinner with Peter and a few other Fijian big wigs and he told us all about the different social issues he's had, and how they've been able to keep this a very controlled society. It was incredible. For one of my projects I'll be going with a few other volunteers to teach computer classes and fitness classes to the people who live in Koroipita. I'm excited to be there more!

We had a few silly experiences while we were building the houses. But I'd say my absolute favorite is about one of the main builders, Sateen. In his time with the Rotahomes project he has built over 720 houses by hand! So Sateen is an Indo-Fijian, meaning he's of Indian descent. I'm not sure what the exact statistic is, but I'd say it's pretty close to a 50-50 split on the island between Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Sateen didn't really have much interest in helping us girls work on the house, so a lot of times we were assigned pretty basic tasks while he and his workers did the harder things. There I was just painting away on one of the frames when I look to my left and see Sateen's buns right in my face! He was bending over installing something and I was definitely in his way. But wait! As I'm looking at it, he lowers further and further until he is literally sitting on my shoulder. I was laughing so hard I was shaking. He continued to perch on my shoulder until he was done doing what he needed to do, and then he stood up and walked away. No recognition, no apology, no anything. We were laughing so hard.

The Rest of the Days:
On Sunday we went to church at the local ward building. The meetings were a total of just over 4 hours long, followed by a full on meal in honor of ward conference. They really run on Fiji time in church, but it was one of the best meetings I have ever been to. The people are so sweet and kind, everyone wants to know where we are from, why we are here, how long we're staying, and where we are living. Those are probably the 4 most common questions we are asked on a daily basis. During sacrament meeting the kids were all over us! They all wanted to sit and draw and talk. There was a little girl on the seat next to me that moved over to Annie's seat next to me and was sitting on her lap during the beginning of the meeting. We looked at her at first glance and were pretty sure she had dandruff, but after a closer examination we noticed that they were moving, and she definitely had lice! We were relieved when she walked to go sit by her mom and we were able to sanitize. Luckily no one ended up with lice.. but it was a close call for sure.

On Monday and Tuesday we spent the days visiting with different partners trying to determine what the need is for us as volunteers, and where we could fit into their programs and be helpful. There are so many different options as to where we can work and what they'd like us to do! It's almost a little overwhelming to think about all of the different people who need our help.

On Wednesday morning we met with the Sunshine Special School, which is where I found my second project... a literacy campaign of sorts to help the students there improve their reading abilities. I'm really excited to get started on that! We've taken it from more of a smaller scale program in just helping those kids to possibly starting a new way to gauge reading skills and then implement better teaching strategies into the classrooms. More information to come on that one.

On Wednesday afternoon, our country directors Candice and Katherine surprised us and took us to a resort for the day! It was gorgeous. We all had a great time getting out of the house and relaxing by the pool while we had our meetings to discuss our possible projects and the directions we could take with them. We found the best caravan driver that took us to and from the hotel.. his name is Matt and he has hair that definitely belongs in some weird Bob Marley mashup with the 70's. It's a giant fro! And he plays the best music we've heard yet... he's probs going to be our chauffeur for most of what we do here. haha. The music here is absolutely hilarious. It's all the normal top 40 songs from home, but mixed with a super heavy reggae beat involving a ridiculous amount of bass. The other day on the bus they started to play a mix of The Lion King with Beyonce that I will stoked about, but the driver changed it. I'm still trying to find it and download it so I can hear the whole thing. We're also on the hunt for a CD version of the music that they play so we can bring it home with us because it's pretty awesome.

For the last couple of days we've been hanging around the house preparing our project proposals and getting ready to start working next week! We're going to go to RakiRaki to do a training with the World Health Organization that everyone is reeeeeally excited about. It'll be a fun few days!

I'm looking forward to this summer. The first few days were rough and I thought 12 weeks was going to drag by, but looking back it's already been more than a week here. I think things will really pick up once we're working every day on our projects and there's lots to get done.