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Pukekohe pair all the way with VSA

Before we, in the west, can even begin to help people from the poorer parts of our world, first we need to prick up our ears and listen to what’s happening on the ground. JON RAWLINSON did just that, hearing about the Howard and Jacqui Iseli’s volunteer work abroad.

When a magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch in February 2011, Pukekohe’s Howard and Jacqui Iseli were nowhere near its epicentre. Instead, the husband and wife team were in Vanuatu with VSA (Volunteer Service Abroad). There they discovered helping our fellow man really is a two-way street.

Jacqui and Howard Iseli signed on with VSA.

“The government there made a donation to our earthquake relief fund. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it showed genuine compassion; that there is a two-way relationship,” Howard explains.

Jacqui adds: “And, there was even a collection taken at the local co-op shop. When we saw how little people there have, and yet they were still caring enough to reach out and help in whatever way they could, it was really heart-warming.”

Largely funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, VSA also relies on assistance from the corporate sector and individual donations. Yet, when it comes to improving the lives of people, there’s no substitute for dedicated volunteers.
Today, Jacqui is busy working on her Masters’ thesis, drawing on lessons learned when developing a dictionary which defines basic signs developed by deaf people in the absence of formal language.

“People with disabilities [in Vanuatu] are often hidden away. [Many] think the family has done something wrong or bad. I had to tell them that deafness isn’t a punishment. You could see the weight come off their shoulders when I said there were people with disabilities in every country.”

Howard also continues to give back. Working for the Himalayan Trust, he manages a programme to rebuild schools in Nepal following the 2015 earthquakes.
The Iseli’s say many would be surprised that almost anyone – from doctors and nurses to trades people even administrators – can make a huge difference.

“The most important thing you need as a volunteer is to be adaptable, open to new experiences and interested in people and how they live,” says Jacqui. “Just look at the website [] and if there’s nothing that suits right now, just register your skills and interests. Just about anybody can help.”

Howard, who grew up in Remuera, worked as a civil engineer before moving into business. He adds that while volunteering one’s skills is beneficial, VSA is focused on making a lasting difference.

“Our assignments are very much focused at the grassroots,” he says. “VSA’s role is about capacity building, skills transfer at individual and organisational levels. It’s about transferring skills to effect sustainable change, rather than just having someone come and do a job and leave.”

Signs for all time

When Jacqui Iseli offered to lend VSA a hand, she meant it – quite literally. Having studied sign language and linguistics, the former Pukekohe Christian Bookshop worker assisted hearing-impaired children in Vanuatu (2011-2013) and Papua New Guinea (2014-2015).

“Many deaf people over there are so marginalised. They don’t have language as we know it; their vocabulary is at a preschooler’s level,” she says. “While I know I’ve not made a big difference in their lives, by producing my dictionary I can make a real difference for the next generation.”

The dictionary compiles ‘home signs’ to help the hearing-impaired better communicate with their loved ones.

Overcoming cultural misunderstandings was also an important part of her role.

“People with disabilities [in Vanuatu] are often hidden away. [Many] think the family has done something wrong or bad. I had to tell them that deafness isn’t a punishment. You could see the weight come off their shoulders when I said there were people with disabilities in every country.”

Due to the prevalence of tropical diseases – some of which can cause deafness – and lack of access to immunisation and treatment, hearing issues are more common in countries such as Vanuatu and PNG.

And, while hearing aids worn from a young age can help many affected children learn to speak, they’re often not an option. “The whole two years we were in Vanuatu I think I saw only one person with hearing aids, and they were quite wealthy,” she says. “The weather is not conducive to wearing them because moisture gets in. They’re just not a practical option for most people.”

Originally from Waikato, Jacqui first developed her passion for assisting the hearing-impaired following a chance meeting in 1995.

“I bumped into an old family friend who came around for a meal. He had hearing aids as a child but had become profoundly deaf since. He taught me to fingerspell.

“I just loved it so I took classes and later trained as a sign language interpreter at AUT. I saw how a small problem that might have been fixed could become a big problem that couldn’t be when people didn’t have access to an interpreter.”

Her volunteer work began in 2005 when she and husband, Howard, travelled to the Solomon Island of Rennell with their church, Franklin Baptist. The group set about building a house for a staff member at the vocational training college.

“It’s one of the few Polynesian islands in the Solomons, the rest are Melanesian,” Jacqui explains. “I went along because there was a deaf boy who I hoped to work with but, unfortunately, he was away at the time. However, it did waken me more to linguistics because I discovered that some of their words were very close to Maori.”

Since then, while Jacqui has worked extensively with hearing-impaired children, Howard (a former civil engineer) has also lent his expertise to Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea with VSA.

Iselis in the sun

When tourists go to Vanuatu, they usually ‘resort’ to spending their days soaking up the sun. But this South Pacific nation has much more to offer, Howard Iseli explains.

“Most tourists to Vanuatu go to Port Vila and stay at a resort near there. But Malakula, where we stayed, and other islands in the group, offer a unique indigenous culture and environment,” he says.

Working with the Department of Tourism and a local tourism association, Howard was tasked with helping attract tourists to locations beyond the beaten track.

“One of the most important things I did was to set up a call centre with a website and reliable telephone and internet connections so people could access information about what you can do, how to book and how to get there,” he says.

“My assignment was also about giving indigenous tourism operators a better understanding of what western visitors were looking for.”

Later, in Papua New Guinea, Howard was a programme manager for VSA. “It was a very big role. Mainly, it involved building relationships with partner organisations in PNG, helping identify need and find the right people.”

This position also involved supporting volunteers, arranging accommodation, helping them acclimatise and making sure assignments were on track.“

There is some preparation done before volunteers go abroad. Wherever possible, they’ll meet with former volunteers who have been to the same area, and they all go through orientation once they arrive.

“But, invariably, it is a big culture shock for them. No matter how much preparation you do back here, it can never fully prepare you for such things as the heat, the mosquitoes and the simple differences, such as not being able to rely on decent internet.”

Jacqui says it’s the everyday, little differences that can prove challenging. “In Vanuatu we lived in a thatched roof house with a bathroom up the hill. The solar lighting wasn’t enough to read by so you quickly found out how little there was to do when there’s no electricity especially when it gets dark early!”

Whether helping boost Vanuatu’s tourism industry or ensuring VSA volunteers are at their best when hard at work, Howard confirms his drive to assist others all comes down to a matter of faith.

“You can summarise it with: ‘love God and love others.’ I guess it’s as simple as that!” He laughs. “I use whatever skills I have to help others because I can and I should.”

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