Programs and Support

Another story from a returned volunteer

While all volunteers are recruited, prepared, placed and supported with the intention of achieving the entire PALMS Mission, some volunteers get the opportunity to open their palms in particular ways to different aspects of our mission. The following are personal placement reflections from just two of the twenty PALMS volunteers who returned from placement in the last twelve months. They highlight two key elements of the underlying vision and mission of PALMS.

Annemieke ~ St. Louis Secondary School, Tarawa, Kiribati

Aspect of PALMS Mission ~ Advancing mutually enriching and challenging relationships of understanding, acceptance and care, to the point of sharing worlds of meaning in the deepest sense, with people of a culture different from one’s own.

“Relationships are a funny thing. They are hard enough to maintain in your own community, not to mention the difficulties you are faced with in a cross-cultural situation.

I was born and bred in Sydney. In the year 2003 I ventured to the so-called ‘Island Paradise’ of Kiribati. Initially the people seem so happy, but with some, just as it is in all cultures, if you scratch the surface a little you can witness a pain so deep, a suffering so vivid. Any person who has felt true tragedy understands the intensity of these words.

Whilst the formal teaching that I undertook in Kiribati was invaluable, my greatest achievement was in relationships with the people. Straight away I was welcomed into family homes, I built my social networks really fast, I guess I had to, I was all alone.

Within my first month I had comforted friends in times of tragedy, owing to unforeseen death. I was amazed at how many people I knew had died in such a short time. There was a period of three months where six people close to me had died. I knew I couldn’t perform miracles. What can a white person really do in these situations? I became the only thing I knew how to be, a friend. I often shocked many I-Kiribati people at funeral gatherings when they would see me, a white person, cleaning their dishes, or cooking their dinner. They learnt very quickly that I would pull my weight just like anyone. I lent a shoulder to cry on and just listened.

One thing I am proud of, although I don’t talk too much about it, was the sexual abuse clinic I set up for form six and seven girls at the school. I started the first workshop telling them my story, my story of being sexually abused when I was their age. Why did I do this? I wanted to break down the barriers and dispel the myths.

So many people believed that the white person had the perfect life; no bad could come to them. But I always knew that I could not reach my students if they had this stereotype of me. I had to share myself with them. I wanted them to know that sexual abuse happens across all cultures and all socio-economic groups.

Quite early on in my stay I came to know that violence, especially towards women, was an issue. Yet as it has been in Australia, no one was permitted to talk about it, the community cruelly shunned victims. I knew they needed an outlet to talk; they needed some coping strategies.

The girls hid secrets of abuse so far inside of them. I knew that part of the healing process was talking about it before the pain escalated dangerously. I knew when I talked, they could relate to the emotions I went through. I cried with them. I laughed with them. I got angry with them.

I heard stories that some of the girls had never mentioned before to anyone. A dozen or so girls really opened to me; I just listened and talked through the emotions. I told them how hard it was for me. I never knew at the time, but it was through these relationships that I healed some of my own demons. These girls helped me to be free of the shame I had carried for so many years. I gave them a part of me but in return I gained so much more.

The key to cross cultural relationships is not about always being happy, it’s not always about giving. The key is sharing. Through sharing you show people something I firmly believe- that we are all vulnerable. We have different triumphs and tragedies, but we share one universal need- the need to love and be loved.

The Western world tries to complicate so many things. One thing I miss, one thing I admire so much about the Kiribati nation, is the true beauty in simplicity of the lifestyle. If you hurt you cry, if you’re happy you laugh. But it is only through sharing that I was able to peep through windows. Even if it is only for a short time, it’s truly worth it.”

There are many involved in preparing and supporting our volunteers, helping them to achieve their mission. In this small space it is appropriate to thank the Country Program Coordinators and office volunteers. Despite requiring a mixture of skills and qualifications that would get them all much better incomes, they give themselves to PALMS vision. Ivapene (Africa & Pacific), Christine (Micronesia & Asia), Barbara and Damian; in 2004-05 you have been the magnificent core of this wonderful work.