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From The Village to Vila: A Sewickley-area native’s experience half a world away

September 15, 2018
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Isabella Olive in Vanuatu.

Port Vila, Vanuatu is 8,120 miles from Sewickley. It takes more than 30 hours of travel time and patience to get here.

Vanuatu is an archipelago in the South Pacific, and it sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire making it especially prone to natural disasters. Most recently, the island of Ambae was permanently evacuated due to a volcanic episode that left the island uninhabitable.

Due to the susceptibility of natural disasters as well as the country’s developing infrastructure, one of the most needed areas of development is in the field of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS).

This August, I served as a Humanitarian fellow for IsraAID in Vanuatu. IsraAID is an international non-governmental organization that provides humanitarian aid and development programs around the world.

My decision to pursue public service was inspired by my mom.

My mom has always been my most prominent role model, and her adventurous and altruistic spirit inspires those around her. She instilled in me a global curiosity and has always pushed me to leave my mark on the world.

As a result, I always keep my eyes open to opportunities to learn more about our world and serve the international community. I was presented with the opportunity to apply to be a Humanitarian Fellow for IsraAID, and I jumped at the chance.

The Humanitarian Fellowship is an annual program for 14 college students across the country who are then given the opportunity to serve as an intern on one of IsraAID’s humanitarian aid and development programs around the world.

My time in Vanuatu has flown by quickly. Five weeks is not enough time to truly immerse into the unique and beautiful culture. Vanuatu was formerly known as New Hebrides as a colony of both England and France so there are three official languages: English, French, and Bislama (a mix of both English and French).

The young island nation gained its independence only 38 years ago.

The combination of Ni-Vanuatu (those native to Vanuatu), French, Australian, and Chinese expats makes for an interesting melting pot. Despite the vast diversity, Port Vila is not a large city.

Once I told a bus driver I loved his city, and he reminded me that Port Vila is a village not a city. The buses in Vanuatu are not buses at all, they are vans. They are colorful vans that fill the streets and take you to your destination for 150 Vatu (approximately $1.50).

Your destination is never an address as they are no formal street markers or house numbers here, it is always a landmark that bus drivers know: the back gate of the Mormon church, the Jungle Café, or maybe the market.

It is a relaxed city that runs on Island Time. To set your watch to Island Time, make sure to set it about thirty minutes behind and take your time getting from place to place.

Instead, take in the sights around you, smile at those you see on the street and don’t forget to say “Gud Moning” or “Gud Naet.”

Throughout my fellowship, I have had the pleasure of getting to know community leaders in Vanuatu. IsraAID approaches MHPSS by leveraging local leaders with their expertise in MHPSS to build local capacity for a sustainable support network.

Rosaria Maurice, the head teacher at the Vanuatu College of Nursing Education, was trained in MHPSS by IsraAID then went on to help bring the program to teachers in her school.

I was there to watch her cofacilitate the workshop with an IsraAID MHPSS specialist.

Rosaria has also taken charge on a community project to stop violence in the Nursing College with PSS. I interviewed Rosaria about her project, and I asked her if she is proud of herself for accomplishing so much in her community.

She responded, “Not proud of myself, but I feel like I want to give them something.”

To Rosaria, her impact was a fulfillment of her perceived duty to her students and community.

I also was blessed to spend some time with Lawrence Hinge, a Mental Health Officer in Port Vila. His ability to level with patients illustrated a benevolence that all healthcare professionals should emulate.

Not only did Lawrence approach all patients as a peer, he would also remove his uniform when meeting with his patients to prevent them from ever feeling that he is above them.

All community leaders and changemakers that I have met from Vanuatu taught me a powerful lesson about community, family, and kinship.

The community is the lifeblood of Vanuatu society, and it is the commitment to serving one another that propels them forward.

Community leaders in Vanuatu do not do what they do for pride or recognition, they do it because it is what is right.

My time here has ignited a spark in me to think more locally to initiate global change.

We all owe it to the communities that protected us, supported us, and raised us to give back for the sake of paying it forward. There are notable differences between Sewickley and Vanuatu, but the common thread that maintains even halfway around the world is the desire to put our communities first.

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