Abigayle Zimmerman - General Care Projects in Fiji
Bula! My name is Abigayle Zimmerman, I’m 18 years old and from Washington, D.C. in the United States! I chose to go to Fiji after I graduated from secondary school rather than starting university immediately. This is a very unusual thing to do where I’m from, and I was really nervous going to a place I had not heard anything about, while all of my friends were enjoying their first term of university.
I almost backed out a few times before I left because I felt like I should stick with the “status quo”, but I’m so happy I didn’t! Fiji was such an amazing experience for me and really set me up for my future. I wanted to work with special education students as I’m experienced at working with our department at home, and Fiji just seemed like the best fit for me to do that and have fun with it.
My host family
After a long, and I mean long, journey to Fiji, I took another 5 hour trip to my new home, Suva. When I got there I was picked up by Karishma, a member of Projects Abroad staff, and taken to my host family.
Only my host dad, Wise, was home. My host mum and brother, Niseta and Tony, were at work and school, so Wise made me lunch and we immediately became friends. When Niseta and Tony got home, we all sat around and talked for a few hours. My host family was my best experience of Fiji and, after 3 months with them, they became part of my real family.
I went to Wise’s family reunion in his native village, and Niseta’s work Christmas party. At home I would talk to my host family and fellow volunteers all night about our different cultures, hobbies and just about everything else. When I left, they told me “If you ever come back to Fiji, don’t even call, just show up, your bed is still here.” There are amazing people in Fiji, and making a good relationship with your host family will make Fiji not just a one-off trip, but a permanent second home.
Meeting other volunteers
Speaking of roommates, I had two, an Irish boy, Stephen, who arrived a week after me and a girl from the Channel Islands, Lara, who arrived about 6 weeks after me. Like my host family, I became close with my roommates and the other volunteers I met.
When I arrived there were about 20 volunteers in Suva, and everyone was so welcoming. Over the 3 months there, I made friends all over Europe, Australia, Canada, and even Japan. We still keep in touch on Facebook and I even plan to backpack around Europe to see all my friends. Outside of your placement, the volunteers and host family you meet are the most important part of your placement and you’ll miss them so much when you leave.
My work placement
I worked at the Hilton Early Intervention Centre, and it was so different to what I was used to. In America, children with special needs are included in our public schools. My first surprise in Fiji was that they’re separated into their own schools, and that there were 50 kids in my school alone.
I was placed in teacher Tauga’s class with the behaviourally challenged students. Many had disabilities like Autism, ADD, ADHD, and I had one girl with Downs Syndrome.
When it was time to learn, they’d pay attention, but when it was time to “play” (we did activities that secretly worked on their fine and gross motor skills, shh!), they didn’t even know you were there because they were so into their activities.
My school went up to 8 years old, when they would move to the big special needs schools. I spent all of 3rd term with them and, two weeks before my placement ended, they had their graduation ceremony. I have to admit, I did cry… I miss my kids so much, but I’m so proud of how much they grew before my eyes in the short time I was there.
The staff in Fiji just added to my trip. Every Thursday we would have a meeting or workshop at the office, then we’d all go out to dinner. Most of the times out we’d just go to our favourite place, O’Reilly’s.
I could text or call or go see the staff anytime and talk to them about anything, my placement, my family, how I missed home or what I was doing that weekend. They were there to listen, which just made them another family I got in Fiji. One weekend Ron, the man in charge of Care placements in Suva, even came on our weekend trip to Sigatoka, which was probably my favourite weekend I had in Fiji.
Travelling around Fiji
Visiting the Sigatoka Sand Dunes was my favourite weekend trip and I wish I had gone a second time. It was a black sand beach, and the dunes you had to hike to get over to get to the beach were huge! The rugby team actually practices there because it’s such a workout. The only thing I can say is that the sand was so hot at midday that I actually burned the bottom of my feet!
The beach there was different from the other beaches in Fiji. It had lots of waves (which we got to jump!), while the others were calm and relaxing. That night we had a bonfire on top of one of the dunes and attempted to camp out until it started raining.
Final thoughts on my project
Over my 3 months in Fiji, I saw such a huge difference in my students and myself because of everything around me. I grew more appreciative of my home, but I also grew to love Fiji as a home. I can’t wait to go back and visit all my extended family there, or even maybe go back as a volunteer again. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me, and I don’t regret missing my first term of university at all. I’m thankful I did because I got to have an experience like no one else.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.