When six women from Vanuatu arrived at Caitlin Williams’ farm on the NSW north coast in December to pick blueberries, they had no idea of the damage that Cyclone Pam would do to their homes in Port Vila and on the remote island of Ampebae while they worked.
So, when the community at St Ambrose Catholic Primary Concord West heard that the Category Five storm had destroyed the group’s food crops and local schools on March 13, they were ready to help.
Julieth Boe, Netty Silias, Cindy Aru, Glenda Toalivlivu, Janet Toa and her sister-in-law Louis Toa, attended a special assembly at the school on Friday to collect 12 suitcases worth of donated clothes, food and school books, a day before flying back to Vanuatu. The school also raised $1190 through a gold coin day suggested by Year 3 student Damian Arrow, 8, and will send the items that did not fit in the suitcases to Vanuatu in a crate.
Social outreach is at the core of what we do as a Catholic school.
Two of Mrs Williams’ sisters are teachers at St Ambrose. A phone call to them alerted the school community to the need of the women, who have 22 children between them. The group chose to work in Australia through the federal government’s Pacific Islander Seasonal Worker Scheme to earn enough to send their children to school. Four live on Ampebae, where it will take between three and six months to regrow the taro, corn and other crops that sustain them.
“They didn’t understand the size of it until I showed them
on my screen, then they were worried,” Mrs Williams said.
“I was most concerned about the lack of food, particularly on the island, and I didn’t want to see the all of the money they had earned here to send their kids to school go, because they are so generous, to buy rice to feed the whole town.
“They’ve left their families for three months and worked really hard for a goal… and are too good a people to keep getting knocked down. They are wonderful, loving, resilient, hard-working women and extremely grateful.”
Janet was relieved to hear that her family were safe.
“It was Saturday night and my husband called me and told me that our house was destroyed,” she said.
“I just prayed for my kids and for my husband, for the heavenly father to take care of them. It’s hard but all of my family are safe. I was here for my kids. I want them to get a good education and have a good future.”
Louis, Julieth, Glenda and Cindy live on Ampebae. Though cyclones aren’t uncommon in Vanuatu, Pam’s winds of up to 320 kilometres an hour were too strong for much of their island to withstand.
“We’ve had lots of cyclones, but not like this one,” Louis said. “This one was bigger than all the other ones.”
Janet said the local material that is used to build houses in the highlands needed to be reinforced when the weather turned severe.
“They just use leaves to make each roof and when they hear that a cyclone is coming they have to cut the coconut leaf and tie it on top of the house,” she said.
The group sang songs in English and Ambae to thank the school community for their gifts, which left some parents and teachers with tears in their eyes.
Principal Jamie Wahab said it had been a powerful experience for the community to meet the people their donations would help.
“The parents made a point of saying that they thought it was very powerful that what they gave here on the Friday was going to be with the recipients on the Sunday,” he said.
“We’ve got a very generous community here and social outreach is at the core of what we do as a Catholic school. We want to let the children see that when they bring in their old toys or clothes, they are going straight from their hands to the hands of those in need.”