Sue Marshall had been volunteering with VSA in Timor Leste when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, causing her to be repatriated home. So the minute the Aotearoa New Zealand borders reopened she leapt at the chance to “hit the runway” once more.

Sue Marshall is an Inclusive Education Advisor from Te Awahou (Foxton) and her second assignment with VSA took her to Rarotonga. Here, she worked with the Cook Islands Ministry of Education (Maraurau o te Pae Api’i’) supporting services for inclusive education. As a proven connector of people and agencies, her year-long role saw her working with schools and advisors to support students with specialised learning needs – a role she was well-suited for given her career in education and passion for working with diverse learners.

The assignment had three main goals; to provide personal development to teacher aides, to model and make resources for students with autism, ADHD, dyslexia or mental health challenges, and to work one-on-one with teachers.

For Sue, it was rewarding to see many areas of progress across the year, including teachers and teacher aides working with greater confidence, students having their individual needs met and positive collaboration between agencies taking place. Equally rewarding, the opportunity to engage in reciprocal learning. “Local knowledge, skills and values are paramount when working together,” says Sue. “Learning about Cook Island understandings and aspirations around inclusive education has been meaningful and necessary.

Often I’ve needed to be flexible to accommodate a way of doing things that is unique to the Cook Islands, like sharing kai. People are generous and it has been great learning how groups work together, respecting and enjoying the differences.”

Inclusive Education Advisor for the Ministry, Andre Hansen, agrees that the partnership with VSA has been invaluable. Teachers have grown confident in their teaching styles and ability to work with a broad range of student needs, and students are able to flourish. “Sue’s extensive knowledge and skills were utilised, modeled and recorded. We have set up strategies and practices that are sustainable and culturally responsive and which will continue to be used efor the benefit of the Cook Islands,” he says.

“The inter-VSA contacts on Rarotonga mean we are able to access all kinds of people in a variety of roles across ministries, NGOs and organisations that increase our reach and effectiveness.”

Sue says any volunteer role comes with challenges and for her, learning to speak Cook Island Māori and adjusting to the humidity were two of her biggest. But she recommends the experience to anyone considering volunteering. You receive as much, or more, than you give, she says. “You get to examine your own values and identity, build resilience, meet wonderful people, have loads of fun and learn heaps, all while helping to develop sustainable communities for a better future.”


First published in Vista June 2023