After all of the build up, things put in place, set backs then full acceleration, it was really happening. We were off! Project Aitutaki, our voluntary mission in the Cook Islands. A whole week of Confidence Building and Leadership Training for the beautiful, Araura school.
Upon arrival, we were welcomed with a warm hug and a traditional lay from Araura School’s wonderful Principal, Tracy and her daughter Ruby.
Straight to it, no mucking about, we scooted off on scooters to our accommodation, led by the lovely caretaker of the Amuri Guest House, Rose. Health and Safety was left somewhere under a seat on the plane, as alas, no helmets could be located on the island. Instead, a sideways look for asking the question and a good old concrete pill to harden up!
With temperatures of 30 odd degrees well into the evening, coconuts fresh off the tree for breakfast, lunch and tea was looking the most likely pick on the menu, but we branched out from that, picking papayas and making lemon tea straight from the tree.
Church on Sunday was an Island custom we obliged, and what a blessing it was. Singing to make your hairs stand on end. Afterward, sourcing equipment in prep for our week was somewhat of a challenge in itself, given Sunday is a day of rest, we needed to do anything but. We zipped around on our scooters, scouting locations for projects… and sussing out the best swimming spots.
Monday… game day one, and we were ripe ‘n’ ready on site at 7am. I was posted at the school running a 3-day Marrzipan Workshop with 15 mindfully selected Year 9 and 10’s most in need of the program, whilst the Future Leaders trio conducted a 4-day Leadership course for all of years 11 and 12 (a total of roughly 45 students). What a shock to the system, but… an invigorating and inspiring introduction to how it’s done, ‘Island Stylez’. It was a slow start, giving 110% as teachers in order to receive back an adequate amount of energy to make the experience unique and memorable for the students. We enabled each other through teamwork, with a ‘play-together’ approach. No child was to be put on the spot until prepared and built up with enough positive support and self-confidence. We were spurred on for the week ahead and boy would you believe I was knackered from the day. Out-to it as soon as ours heads hit the pillow.
Needless to say, it was gonna be a challenge, both for us as teachers and trainers as well as the students themselves. If I’m honest, we were up against the heat and a diverse group of individuals of varying enthusiasm and willingness to be there. Why, one might ask? What an opportunity! But we were aware of the foreign territory, and the differing cultural norms and way of life. One thing remained; we were in it together. Adapting, stretching, learning, growing, playing together. And that was the key. Once we broke down the barriers. The pride, ego and insecurities which held ourselves and others back, we could see the project for what it was. We laughed, sweated, battled, debated, challenged, played, swam at each day’s end, sung and some cried together.
A combination of personal and cultural factors meant many students weren’t eating each day. This was perhaps tougher for us to comprehend as trainers with the nature of our work being such high intensity, we rely greatly upon food and fluids to fuel us every day (especially in this foreign heat). So we naturally expect the same for our students in order for them to reach their own full potential. We therefore took it upon ourselves and I whizzed around by scooter, mustering what I could to cook up a mean feed for those students who didn’t have lunch. Despite our efforts, this made little difference to energy levels, but the intention was there. Perhaps it simply came down to the intensity of our program catching up with the group.
Mid week we were treated to Island Night Shows with buffet dinners where our students were a part of the dance, drum and fire stick ensembles. It was pretty breathtaking the level of skill involved and was so nice to see our students in their element, performing with real purpose and passion.
Wednesday arvo, and the Marrzipan group performed! After much apprehension to begin with, my 15 put on a spectacle to the whole of years 7 through 10 on the stage of the school hall to deafening cheers and support from peers throughout the self-devised show. Some would have never dreamed they’d be standing where they were, delivering a phenomenal display of new self-confidence and ability. Their gratitude for what they had the privilege of experiencing with Marrzipan was humbling. In one of my student’s words “I’m going to be an actress one day!”. Our audience were full of congratulations for their friends who had the bravery to perform and were approaching me expressing their astonishment at the quality of the show and their keenness to get involved next time round.
Just down the road in the community hall at the end of the following day, the Future Leaders group of 45 odd bellied with laughter at Davina’s final video edit, highlighting their week that had been. They sung their hearts out as a final thank you and goodbye and some were reduced to tears at what they’d achieved through the program as a result of the influence and motivation of their trainers. They stood and spoke like real leaders about their experience with us.
On the Friday morning, the day before our departure from Aitutaki, we conducted a school project as a group, putting our new leadership skills to work, laying gravel under a shelter, erecting posts in a field for vines to grow, stripping and clearing rows of banana trees and mowing the lawns. So fulfilling to see the transformation in these young adults. The initiative, drive, teamwork and enjoyment on show was so encouraging.
It was the first of many overseas projects to come. No, it didn’t go perfectly smoothly or as planned by the book. As Chief Jethro says, “no plan survives the hour”. Heck, we’ve got the battle scars to prove it. I came off my scooter with minor scrapes and bruises as did Davina, whilst JP and his team came away with cuts from hidden coral. Some handled the insect bites better than others too… ha ha. Nevertheless, we hope to turn what could be classed as a once in a lifetime opportunity, into an ongoing venture of ours to extend our influence across oceans and make a real difference in young lives.