On the 24th July 2014 we officially opened the Jump Start Foundation (JSF) Library at Isangel Central Primary School on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. I can honestly say it was the proudest day of my life.
There was nothing easy about our goal to build a library on a remote island in the Pacific where we don’t really speak the local language or have quick access to monitor the project!!!!! But we knew that this community was so very special because they all desperately wanted a brighter future for their children, but with literacy levels so low (one of the lowest in the Pacific), they were realistic about these chances ever happening.
After many discussions with experienced development workers in Australia, the Director of Education Services in Vanuatu, AusAid, PeaceCorp, and the staff, parents and community leaders of Isangel Central Primary School, we decided that a library would be a practical and symbolic building for everything we all hoped to achieve for future generations of children in this wider community.
We started with $0, no building idea, and all of us volunteering around our busy work & family lives. It took 39months from inception to completion with many tears, tantrums, ‘what-the-hell-are-we-doing’ moments along the way. With more than 700 volunteer hours of work here in Sydney performed by more than 200 of our supporters to make it happen, our beautiful Library was completed.
The biggest hurdle was our commitment to making it a combined community project. As you know my hubby Ken is a builder and he kept saying, “let me take my boys over and I will have it done for you in 2weeks!”. But we new from hearing about other ‘development’ projects around the world, that by going in and building it ourselves and making all the decisions would mean that the school would not respect it, have ownership of it, nor appreciate or care for it.
So we made the decision that we would use local materials, local tradesmen and local decision-makers throughout the entire process. Timber came from the forests behind the school and was milled not far away; 3000 concrete blocks were hand-made by one little man I walked past every day on my way to the school; the boys from the local Trade School who were studying to be builders were able to build the library (under supervision) as part of their practical component of their certification; a local father and son electrician wired it all up; the school held fundraisers such as Talent nights and the selling of Island greens to raise a proportion of the total cost; Mamas and Papas collected coral from the beach for the concrete slab; the students stood in a line on a hot day passing a bucket of water from the one tap in the school to the concrete mixer; the teachers filled sandbags of dirt to use as a filler; they held Parent and Citizen meetings while I was in Vanuatu so we could discuss any potential problems and make decisions together about the next steps; and Mamas made beautiful curtains and floral arrangements on completion ready for our big Opening Celebration.
The entire community got behind this project from the very beginning, hence their strong sense of pride and respect for it.

To finalise preparations for the Official Opening, we had 32 Jump Start Foundation volunteers (ranging from 15mths to 91yrs of age) working hard to do all those last minute jobs. They painted; sorted old books; stamped, catalogued and assigned new books onto shelves; completed a modified Dewey Decimal Card System; sanded the library furniture; painted volcanic rocks to use as bookends; cleaned, dusted and did whatever was asked of them to ensure we were ready for the big celebrations. This all happened while delighted, inquisitive, giggling, smiling Ni-Vanuatu children watched in awe!
It was incredible to observe the school use all their natural environment to make the decorations. The floral arrangements that the Mamas put together would have cost over $200 each here in Australia (there was 5 of them!) and they whipped them up overnight! They also used palm fronds and bougainvillea and greenery to transform the school into a picture postcard.

The appreciation and excitement that oozed from everyone in that community, was enough to break your heart. We were welcomed into the Official Ceremony by traditional custom warriors dancing, the students gave us beautiful lays that had made, there were speeches, the exchange of gifts (they gave us gorgeous hand-crafted grass bags made by the Mamas, and we gave the staff and students Literacy Gift packs – 160 in total), and then the Zone Curriculum Advisor and I cut the ribbon to officially open this beautiful library that has been lovingly and respectfully finished by two caring & committed communities from across the Pacific.

As Vicky Nash, (one of our JSF’s volunteers) said, “Seeing the community of teachers, parents & children turn out to celebrate & commemorate the opening of the Library at ICPS was evidence of the need, appreciation & support they had for the project. After the official ribbon cutting it was a stampede to get through the door to the books! One of the teachers, with a child at the school, explained to me the hopes and dreams she has for her son. She was excited about how the Library will help play an important role in that by giving him an environment to discover and learn.”

The JSF/ICPS library is a real milestone for this part of Vanuatu bringing the first new children's’ books ever to the community and dramatically increasing the range of choices available to students.  It will bring much needed learning resources for the children of Tanna, as well as their families, the wider community and future generations.

We developed this library project with the goals of fostering community participation and developing community ownership at its forefront. By involving the local community in every step from conception to delivery, the project has enhanced everyone’s appetite for education and long-term improvement in literacy. These children are the future leaders of Vanuatu and it is just so exciting to think about who they will be and what they will become.

Thank you to every one of you who has donated dollars, time, experience & supplies to make this project a success. Even writing this it still brings tears to my eyes at the overwhelming feeling of pride I had on that day to see such a big dream come true, despite the many, many personal challenges that this last 18mths has brought. The continual support and encouragement and ‘we-can-do-it’ attitude of the Jump Start Foundation management committee and members is what has got us (me!) over the line, and it is an achievement that all of us will be proud of forever.

Thank you again for your support.

Heidi Dening


P.S. We have dozens of photos on our Facebook page of the Official Opening that I would love for you to see. You can do this by becoming a JSF FB Fan. Enjoy :)

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