An Interview With Sarah Ashton, Vinaka Fiji

Sarah Ashton, a hospitality manager, volunteers for Vinaka Fiji on the remote Yasawa Islands, where the islanders live below world standards of health and poverty. A small charity, Vinaka Fiji helps with education, sustainable living and marine conservation and relies heavily on its volunteers. Sarah got in touch with ParcelHero when she had a package to send to the children and we were delighted to help out. Nick Buglione spoke to her about her work with Vinaka Fiji.

What work does Vinaka Fiji do?
The Vinaka Fiji Trust was set up to give something back to the villagers to say ‘thank you’ (Vinaka) for welcoming us to their islands. Vinaka Fiji is currently working on Naviti Island with five villages; Soso, Muaira, Kese, Marou and Malevu. Vinaka Fiji is based at Barefoot Island Resort on a neighbouring island.

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What are the Trust’s biggest challenges?
The weather, lack of power and poor water. The school has no computers, no internet and no lights and all schooling is done on blackboards and using textbooks. The children can’t even read at night as there is no electricity. As we speak, they are running out of clean drinking water as it hasn’t rained on Naviti for three months. There is little that can be done about bad weather but during high winds or heavy rain, Vinaka Fiji is unable to get to the villages for anything from a day to a couple of weeks.

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What areas do you concentrate on?
The Trust helps improve the villagers’ lives through three areas – education, sustainability and marine conservation.The education projects aim to improve the reading level of the children in Naviti District School. This school has children from 4 villages attend and all classes are taught in English. The Sustainable communities’ project aims to help the villagers become self-sufficient and improve their diet and the Marine programme protects the reef by restricting fishing, planting coral and encouraging plantlife.

How did you get involved?
I am a volunteer and first came across Vinaka Fiji in December 2013 when I came here on holiday. I had been interested in volunteering abroad and thought it would be a good way to combine volunteering and a holiday. I first came for a week to help on the Education project. We visited the local villages with books and created a mobile library. I enjoyed myself so much, I came back in February this year. Among other things, we launched an organic farm and provided a drinking water solution by collecting rainwater.

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How did you and ParcelHero get together?
When I returned to the UK, I decided to do a fundraising event to raise money. I did an event in my local church and managed to raise enough money for pencil cases, stationery, books, whiteboards and puzzles. I packed it all up and then had to find a carrier to get it to Fiji.

How did Parcelhero help?
I looked at many ways to send the parcel but they were all very expensive. Most couriers I looked at would have cost close to £200 or more. Kindly ParcelHero offered me a 50% discount which meant much more of the money I raised could be spent on resources rather than delivery costs. Even on a remote island, ParcelHero still delivered door to door.

vinaka-fiji4-parcelheroHave the kids been enjoying their educational goodies?
Yes. I have handed out the pencil cases (with pencil, pen, ruler, rubber and pencil sharpener) and they were all really grateful.  Small things we take for granted make a big difference to these kids. They will use these every day and the books and educational recourses I sent are being used to teach in the school and improve English and grammar.

So they are learning English?
Yes, but they have to learn three different languages. There are 22 dialects in Fiji and the children on the island have their own dialect as well as learning the common Bauan dialect. They face huge challenges from a young age as without passing English they cannot progress through school.

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What do you get out of volunteering for Vinaka Fiji?
Volunteering allows me to help build a better future for others. Seeing an improvement with a child’s reading from one week to the next is amazing. Being a returning volunteer is even more rewarding as the children and villagers remember me and the look of excitement when they see me is priceless. The people here feel like family and I am told that when I leave the children often ask ‘Where is Miss Sarah’. Even though the people here may have so little, they give so much and it makes you realise how fortunate you are.

What are Vinaka Fiji’s primary fundraising channels?
Awesome Adventures is the main contributor to Vinaka Fiji. Awesome Adventures is a privately owned tour company and each time someone books, a $10 donation is given to Vinaka Fiji. Also each volunteer like myself, gives donations and organises fundraising events. We are not an enormous charity, every penny helps!

For more info on Vinaka Fiji visit http://www.vinakafiji.org.fj/. You can make a donation to Vinaka Fiji at https://www.fundraiseonline.co.nz/fundraise/makedonation_direct.aspx?c=402

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