Accompanying Partners can have just as big an impact as the volunteers they accompany. When Dunedin’s Joy Atkinson joined volunteer husband Graeme on his posting to Tonga, she was keen to make herself useful – and she has certainly done that. Among her projects has been a social enterprise that Joy hopes will be sustainable long after she’s gone.
IT consultant Graeme began a one-year volunteer assignment at the Ocean of Light International School in Nuku'alofa in August 2017, and Joy joined him a month later. After a week-long orientation, followed by a few days cycling round the island getting her bearings (luckily she’d taken her trusty bicycle), Joy started looking for some volunteer work of her own.
“You can’t stay inside all the time, you’ve got to go out and kind of make some things for yourself.
“So I just started asking people ‘what is there to do, what volunteering is there?’ And there are lots of opportunities. You just start to find what’s out there and what would be a good match for what you want to do.”
Joy, a relieving primary school and intermediate science teacher, was keen to try something different while in Tonga. She was quickly put in touch with two organisations: Women and Children Crisis Centre Safe House (WCCC) and the Tongan Women's International Social Club (TWISC).
Set up in 2009, the Women and Children Crisis Centre – a long-term VSA partner organisation – supports survivors of violence against women and girls throughout Tonga. Along with free counselling and support services, its Mo’ui Ke Fiefia Safe House provides 24-hour temporary, safe housing to women and children who need it.
When women present to the WCCC, they’re often brought by the police, says Joy. Once there, they receive a wrap-around service. “They get counselling, they get medical care, they get the offer to stay in the safe house if they need accommodation, and they also get legal representation. And they stay there until their whole case can be worked through and they’re ready to exit to a safe environment.
“So it’s a really interesting place. Sometimes it’s really busy – you can be absolutely full to the gunnels with maybe nine kids, and a whole lot of adults and teenagers there. More recently it’s been much quieter, there have been just a few people staying.”
But for the women and children, being cooped up in a safe house and unable to leave can get boring. At the time Joy started volunteering there, safe house coordinator Jean Ellerby-Mutu – another VSA volunteer – was looking for some new activities to offer residents. She’d organised a volunteer to take the young girls swimming, and another to teach crafts. She was hoping to find someone to teach sewing skills: partly to open up job opportunities for the women when they exit, but also so they could make clothes for themselves and their children. Families in the safe house have often had to leave possessions including clothing behind in a hurry, and new clothes are expensive in Tonga.
With the help of a generous grant from the Tindall Foundation (another VSA partner organisation), Jean had bought sewing machines, a store cupboard, a table, bench seats and sewing equipment. She’d also organised a week’s sewing training for the staff. She was on the lookout for someone to get the sewing project moving. “And I said ‘oh I can do that’”, says Joy.
She has been teaching sewing one or two days a week ever since.
“It’s very social. We all sit around, and we chat and have a bit of a joke and we laugh. It’s often the teenage girls who work with me, and sometimes the older women, and if it’s a quiet day the staff will work with me too.’
Joy began by teaching the women and girls how to make tote bags because they were simple for a beginner, and an environmentally friendly alternative to the plastic bags that proliferate on the island: “Plastic in the Pacific is a huge problem, and you see plastic everywhere – water bottles, plastic bags, single-use plastic trays.”
As they sat chatting and sewing, she and her group of sewers hatched a new plan: to make tote bags incorporating colourful Pacific designs and sell them.
Using as her prototype a shoulder bag that VSA gives to all volunteers, Joy made a brown paper pattern and bought some calico and some Pacific-themed fabric from local stores.
“We had a couple of attempts: we made one that didn’t work so well! And then we hit on this one, which fitted the material we’ve got available. It’s very easy to sew because it’s all straight lines.
“I just cycle into town and choose the fabric at random: sometimes there are off-cuts being sold cheap, perfect for us because we only need small pieces. And the bags are just really nice, they’re really attractive.”
The bags are given in exchange for a donation, and Joy says so far they’ve sold themselves by word of mouth.
“They’re really popular – there’s nothing really like them on the market here, so people see them and they just really like them. Our long-term plan is to see if we can find an outlet on the island [to sell them through], but every time we make them, I chat to someone and they just go! I took them along to a TWISC [Tongan Women’s International Social Club] coffee morning, and they just went from there.”
Being lightweight and foldable, the bags are particularly popular with New Zealanders and Australians returning home, with some even taking 10 at a time.
Joy takes her bags everywhere with her and has learned to say “Ikai fiema'u milemila, malo” (“I don't need a plastic bag, thank you”).
The safe house sewers have now expanded their range into cushion covers, which Joy says are also easy for beginners: “Most of the seams are hidden so doesn't matter if they’re a bit wobbly!”
The money raised from the bags and cushions goes back into keeping the project going and buying material for the women to make more things for their families, as well as occasionally funding other safe house initiatives.
“The centre manager, Mele Tuifua Takapu, has a focus on improved food outcomes, so we’ve been able to buy some new kitchen equipment and she teaches the families some different ways of cooking. So it helps support other projects as well. And if there’s a shortfall it means there’s a little bit of extra money there.”
Even more importantly, says Joy, the project rebuilds women's confidence. While she doesn’t always know their stories –“I don’t expect them to share their stories with me, sometimes they’ll tell me a little bit” – she has observed changes in many over time.
"Especially the young girls, you see that change in confidence, that ability to laugh again – and with that organisation, that’s really lovely.
“There’s a young woman I’ve been working with for quite a long while now. She’d come to the safe house for various reasons. To see her change, and be more confident, and to have a laugh and a joke with you – and to feel that this young person, because of this place, has a future, and you’re just contributing a little bit to that – it’s just really positive.”
One woman who had left the safe house later invited Joy to her new home. “And she’s doing all right: she’s got a job, and at last she has her own household. It’s a very simple place but she has her own place with her kids and she’s in control of her life. And it’s hard, but she’s making changes, and you do a little bit to help.”
Joy wants to make sure the project is sustainable after she leaves; she hopes the women will be able to open a stall and sell to passengers from visiting cruise ships. She has run some sessions demonstrating some ways of displaying and selling the bags, and shared some ideas for marketing and selling to people from other countries.
“Each bag comes with a little note which says ‘these bags are handmade in Tonga by residents, staff and volunteers at the Women and Children’s Crisis Centre’ and tells the story. And I explained that people are really interested in the backstory to these products – who’s been making them and why – so have the story there when you’re selling.
“And explaining that European visitors like to know the price up-front, and that also people like to see the bag in use, so show the bag full of food and how strong it is, as well as having some all nicely packaged up. We also talked about the importance of acknowledging the people who’ve supported you, like the Tindall Foundation.”
Former volunteer Jean, who has completed her assignment and now lives in Melbourne, says Joy had a huge impact on the success of the sewing programme. “It would never have progressed as much as it did without her – she really was the driving force behind it. I didn't have that much time to devote to it and it was a big relief for me when Joy initiated a lead role.”
More than that though, says Jean, “she just made women and children at the safe house feel good with her presence and kind gestures. She had a way of making everyone feel important and special – even baking birthday cakes for them. She brought a sense of positivity, good humour and friendship, not just to me but to all the women and children she spent time with. We all looked forward to Joy turning up at the safe house”.
Joy says she learns as much as she teaches when she’s at the safe house – whether it’s Tongan plaiting and making mats, or practising her Tongan language.
“We have the radio on which is hilarious, we’ll be listening along to the radio and I’ll hear a word I recognise and go ‘why are they talking about chickens?’ And they’ll laugh and I’ll get this whole explanation. We have a lot of laughs about my poor Tongan.”
Joy has even arranged for the Interact volunteer club at her daughter’s former high school to fundraise for the safe house: so far they’ve raised around $400, which will go towards a new water tank.
When she’s not at the safe house, Joy has been volunteering with the Tongan Women's International Social Club (TWISC). One of her roles has been coordinating volunteers for Vaiola Hospital’s playroom.
Set up by the hospital’s head of paediatrics Dr George Aho, a strong advocate of play as therapy for children in hospital, the playroom is open all year. Between April and August, TWISC volunteers go in to read to the children and set up areas of play.
“Quite often the children have come from the outer islands, so they’re there with a family member. And they’ll stay for quite a long time until the treatment’s finished, so often you’ll see the same kids every day for two or three weeks, and you get to know them a little bit,” says Joy.
As well as coordinating the volunteers, Joy has helped find toys, books and activities for the playroom, scouring local second-hand stores and asking friends back home for donations.
“The biggest challenge is for the kids who are on drips or in traction and have to stay in their beds. So we try to find things to take to them – it might be colouring or story books or different toys like little spinning tops.”
Parents can get bored in hospital too, says Joy. “There’s a big culture of playing draughts in Tonga, and the kids love it, and the adults play it all the time as well. So the draughts sets will go out and they’ll be really popular, and dads will play with their kids.”
As with the safe house, Joy has found the hospital volunteering extremely rewarding.
“And it’s often the little changes, that as a volunteer we make. You can’t change the world, but you can do some little bits. Sometimes just seeing kids play at the hospital: they’ve had an afternoon that was fun, you know? And if they’re waiting for us the next time we go in, you think, well that’s kind of nice. They’ve had a bit of fun. And that’s lovely.”
Joy also helped out in the aftermath of Cyclone Gita, which struck Tonga in February 2018. Many areas lost power and water and there was extensive damage to buildings.
For VSA volunteers, the focus went onto supporting partner organisations. Joy teamed up with some Australian volunteers (who had a car and a power generator) to support the WCCC staff. They were working “long, long hours” says Joy, not just helping their own clients but assessing damage to the centre and collecting data for the recovery programme.
“They were working all day in the office, and their own houses were damaged, and they just weren’t eating. So just taking a big tray of sandwiches in was really helpful and really appreciated.”
Joy and her friends helped find solar-powered lights and radios for the safe house; they also took in laundry. This was a big issue, says Joy – especially for women, who take most of the responsibility for cleaning. Being clean and tidily dressed is very important in Tonga, and standards were not relaxed after Gita. Moreover, flooding had soaked clothes, bedding and soft furnishings which quickly grew mould.
“Being able to pick up clothes and bedding and wash them for people was really appreciated, and helped, in a small way, to take some of the pressure off.”
Meanwhile the WCCC nurse was travelling long distances to check on former clients; women remain clients even after they exit the centre. Joy and the other volunteers provided food and water for her to give any families who needed immediate help.
They also donated phone cards and drove people out to the villages to check on relatives.
“One of the women who was staying at the safe house hadn’t been able to get in touch with anybody in her family. So we took her and one of the staff, and we drove right out to the other side of the island, and checked on her sister and her grandma. And it was lovely, because they hadn’t known how she was, and she didn’t know how they were. It was quite special.”
For her part, Joy has been struck by Tongans’ kindness. Post-Gita, when New Zealand and Australian crews were working to help local crews restore electricity, she saw a whole village bring out food for them. And she says if someone is walking home and it’s raining, “you can guarantee someone will stop and say ‘do you want a ride?’ in the nicest way”.
She says Tongan culture is very respectful culture – as a frequent cyclist she has been struck by the lack of road rage - and she believes the pace of life is “much better” than New Zealand’s.
“It can be frustrating in that sometimes you just want to go and get things done, and done now. But then at the same time, we’re much more relaxed, and we’re much more accepting that, yeah we might have to wait for that. And if you’ve got to queue somewhere – like you go to get your driver’s licence renewed – it’s a real opportunity to have a chat to somebody. So somebody will make space on the seat and you sit down and have a chat.
“We’re often getting anxious about time… but actually, on the whole, I think it’s much better to be more relaxed, and kind of live in the moment: you know, ‘this is happening now’.”
In fact, asked about the biggest reward of her stay in Tonga, Joy answers: “I think time has been lovely. Graeme and I have had a lot more time together. Going off on the weekends cycling and doing things that we maybe didn’t have time to do before.
“And all the new friends. We’ve made some incredible new friends here: volunteers, some of our Tongan friends… It just opens your world to new people, and people are quite fascinating: their motivations for volunteering, and where they come from, and their willingness to have a good time!”
And does she have any advice for someone considering going as an accompanying partner? “Do it! Just have a go really. There’s so much you can do: some people volunteer, others will go off and do projects they’ve always wanted to do, like photography or learning golf.
“And make an effort to learn the language: I was really poor, I didn’t really get into learning the language until quite recently. And that’s something I regret, that I didn’t make more of an effort there, because the language is really the gateway to understanding culture.”
Joy says being away from family has been the biggest challenge.
“But one thing I would say is that VSA are really good at supporting their volunteers and accompanying partners. There’s always somebody at the end of a phone. If you’re ever not sure, if something’s happened, or a health issue, they’re right there. They have staff who come out and visit fairly regularly, so when you talk to them, they know the situation, they know where you are, they’re familiar with what’s going on.
“I think that is really important, and to have confidence in the organisation. They are lovely people. And you’re not on your own. You may feel like you’re going off on your own to this strange new place, but actually you’re not on your own. People have done it before and they know how to look after you.”