“Be true to yourself and never give up…” The words of the song float into the tops of the palm trees as the children dance. Some sway and jive in a choreographed pattern, others do their own moves and some simply sit and clap. Every face is smiling. This is the children of Sigatoka School for Special Education on the Coral Coast of Fiji’s way to thank around 200 people for walking 10kms and raising FJD$42,000 (AUD$28,000).
Earlier, kicking off the start of the annual Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort’s Walkathon, another group of children sing a different song.
“If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…” shouts around 40 lively voices from the Conua District Primary School. Led at a cracking pace by Peter Hopgood, the General Manager of the Outrigger Fiji Beach resort, we head along the driveway and out onto the road. And like the children of the Sigatoka school, the Conua kids appreciate the efforts of Peter and his staff for organising the walkathon. Many wouldn’t be at school without it.
“When I first visited the Conua school back in 2010, there were 55 students with a pass rate of 38 percent,” Peter says as we stride together in sync. “This year 165 students are enrolled and the 2017 pass rate was 87 percent. In the last eight years, we’ve built a kindergarten, two classrooms, a library, a computer lab and a meeting bure. More housing for the staff is our current project. The money raised today will help.”
Originally from Queensland where he started his hospitality career scrubbing pots, Peter is revered in these parts. His 600 strong staff (95 percent locals) affectionately call him, ‘Bosso,’ and the village children chant ‘Mr Peter’ and give him high-fives.
“The warmth and happiness of the people is what attracted me to Fiji in the first place.” After taking on the top job at Outrigger, Peter decided to incorporate fundraising as a basis for the resort. “Each month a different department organises a fundraising event,” he says.
In addition to supporting education in the region, Outrigger have also helped build a maternity ward in the local hospital, developed a trainee chef program and they even a run a competition for budding hairdressers, quickly gaining celebrity status throughout Fiji.
“It’s like writing a book, every year we add another chapter,” says Peter. “We keep coming up with ideas, and the guests love getting involved.”
During the walk, I meet up with one guest who’s taken getting involved to the max.
When Mark Luckey a businessman from Sydney holidayed here with his family earlier this year, he was so moved by the Outrigger community program he returned. Not only is he here for the walkathon, he’s spending a week working as a labourer to help build the new teacher’s houses at the Conua school.
“When I was sitting in my office in Sydney, I suddenly thought how it’s easy to donate money, but to step out of my comfort zone would be even more meaningful.”
It’s a common feeling amongst the walkers.
The 10 kilometres goes in a flash as we pass through villages dotted along the waterfront. Although it’s a Saturday morning, we catch glimpses of village life – men slashing crops, women picking fruit, toddlers playing and dogs rummaging for food scraps. A young boy fishing off a bridge stops me to show his morning catch – a yellow fin mackerel. Others gather in groups to cheer and clap us on.
The walk finishes at the Sigatoka School for Special Education where the party atmosphere continues well past the last person crosses the line. In addition to the school kids dancing, there’s face painting, a jumping castle, cultural dancers, a sausage sizzle and heart touching speeches.
A couple of days later, Peter drives a small group of walkers up the valley to spend time at the Conua school. The road is rough. “With the money raised from the Walkathon, we’ll be able to buy a 4WD to transport kids with special needs from here to the Sigotaka school,” he says. “It’ll make a big difference.”
Even though it’s school holidays, many kids are waiting at the gate, eager to give us a tour of their school. Shyness vanishes as small hands wrap around fingers and lead us through each classroom. The library and computer lab are the central focus, as the kids choose their favourite books and keenly practise their English. There’s extra squeals of joy as we reveal gifts for the school – books, stationery and toys.
Construction has already started on the new staff houses and there, amid the workers, is Mark covered in sweat and a few kilograms lighter. “I’ve never felt so exhausted, but it’s totally exhilarating,” he says.
And the look on the faces of the children makes everything worthwhile – sparkling brown eyes filled with gratitude.
How to help?
The Outrigger Fiji Beach resort’s annual Walkathon is held each April. Guests can also become involved in other community tourism projects throughout the year. Visits to the Conua school take place twice weekly and can have a profound impact, particularly on families. If you’re planning a holiday to Outrigger – pack a few extra things like books and stationery items for the school. outrigger.com
Photography by Jocelyn Pride