TO most Australians, Fiji is the land of plenty – a sun-soaked, tropical holiday destination renowned for its blue lagoons, relaxed lifestyle and tropical fruit trees lining the roads.
But Frankston teacher Janine Atkinson knows from experience that away from the spotlight of tourists and flashy resorts, poverty, poor sanitation, food shortages and child welfare problems are the reality.
Ms Atkinson, who has been visiting Fiji for the past nine years, will take leave from work to spend a year in a remote Fijian village to provide education resources and help locals set up sustainable industries.
Ms Atkinson said the rural villages of Fiji, which don’t share in the tourism dollar, often have little income. Poverty forces children to drop out of school and those who do get there are often in buildings in very poor condition and devoid of basic materials.
But instead of cash handouts, Ms Atkinson believes the key to helping is to teach sustainability.
“When I first went to Fiji on holidays I wasn’t happy with being in a resort and having Fijians wait on me hand and foot, I wanted to experience the villages and the local people, and that’s where I saw a terrible need for even basic necessities,” she said.
“I felt I was in a position to help so I’ve been going back every year since, helping families, developing contacts and taking over everyday supplies such as toothbrushes and antiseptics, sports goods and stationery.
“But I also know that it’s important that these villagers are helped to look after themselves and are able to set up their own industries that will sustain them.”
Ms Atkinson has built a small, one-room hut in a village in Fiji’s north, where she will spend 12 months helping out with resources and sustainability skills, including helping to set up a fishing industry with nets she has purchased from her own savings.
Not daunted by the challenge of life without electricity or running water, Ms Atkinson said she knows exactly what she is in for.
“I’ve stayed with families over there and seen it all, I know what to expect.”
Ms Atkinson, who funds her trips from her own income, said Fijian villages were always in need of school supplies, sports goods and basic health necessities, as well as equipment to help them set up industries.
So far, businesses and friends have rallied behind the cause, including Kingsley Park Primary School, which provided ten computers, Frankston’s Input Gym members who collected and donated 20 pairs of runners, and a school in Wangaratta, which donated school bags.
According to the Asia Pacific Development Bank, only 50 per cent of Fijians have access to safe water and proper sanitation.
More than 250,000 people in Fiji live in poverty and are unable to meet their basic needs, with many more living on or just above the poverty line.
Anyone who would like to assist with donations of supplies, particularly gardening equipment and sewing machines, can contact Ms Atkinson’s Facebook page at facebook.com/janine.atkinson.9 online.