Gone – but she’ll be back: ‘This island and its people are special’

Monday March 23, 2020 Written by Published in Weekend
Global volunteer Ellen Holzschuh during her volunteer work at St Joseph’s School. 20032013 Global volunteer Ellen Holzschuh during her volunteer work at St Joseph’s School. 20032013

As the last tourists and volunteers fly out of Rarotonga, one departing Global Volunteer tells how paradise is watching the sunset and listening to the waves. Paradise is Cook Islands. 

Thirteen times, she has been back to Rarotonga to teach children at Saint Joseph’s School. And she has loved it.

The friendliness of the island is what got Ellen Holzschuh interested in returning to Cook Islands every year.

“I think my first impression was that everything on the island was on a much smaller scale compared to my home town of Minneapolis but because of the smaller size the people were much friendlier.”

Holzschuh says over the years she has made friends with so many of the teachers, shopkeepers, and parents. 

“It gives me such a warm feeling when I can walk into a shop after being gone for a year and they say ‘Oh, it's so good to see you back again!’ I appreciate island time.”

She says things back home in Minnesota, USA, are sometimes too hectic. 

“When I'm in the Cook Islands I enjoy the time when I can watch the sun crest on the morning horizon, watch the awe-inspiring colours of a sunset and listen to the endless crashing of the waves.  That's paradise to me.”

Every year she looks forward to the fresh fish, dragon fruit, pawpaw, passion fruit, corn beef and breadfruit stew and trips to Super Brown's for hokey pokey and passion fruit ice cream.

She is also impressed by the resourcefulness of the islanders. 

“There are so many interesting small businesses on the island and I try to support them whenever possible.  Pearls, coconut oils, vanilla, perfume, artists, authors, breweries, progressive dinners, carvers, bike rides, hikes and many more.”

Holzschuh did her first volunteer trip with Global Volunteers in 2006 to the island of Kauai in the state of Hawaii.

“We work alongside the locals and under their direction. I enjoyed the programme there and the idea that Global Volunteers works with communities that ask for our help. “
Once she felt comfortable with the programme she was interested in going somewhere she had never been before and the Cook Islands programme piqued her interest. 

Upon a recommendation from a previous volunteer she decided to see for herself what Rarotonga was all about.

February 2007 was Holzschuh’s first touchdown on the island, and she has missed only a year since then. Even coronavirus didn’t stop her.

She says she has also made some amazing Global Volunteer friends over the years and some of them still plan our trip so we can meet in Rarotonga each year.

“It took just one visit to know that the island and its people were special.”

She has been in Rarotonga teaching the children of St Joseph's School, where she works with students in all grade levels.

The children are identified by their teachers as needing some extra help with basic reading skills that will help students catch up with the rest of their classmates. 

She uses alphabet flash cards for those students still learning the alphabet and letter sounds. 

Older students may work on basic sight words, understanding what beginning, middle and end sounds are within a word to unlock the “mystery” of sounding out words and play word games that become fun ways for them to read. 

And at all levels story books are used to reinforce the lessons that have been covered each day.  

Holzschuh comes to Rarotonga to volunteer for three weeks each year and works with one or two students at a time.

“I feel even in this short time, I can get to know my students and be more focused on their academic needs.  We work hard on a few core lessons and with individual instruction there are sometimes very rewarding ‘light bulb’ moments for teacher and student alike.”

Global Volunteers country manager James Puati says the 176th team of volunteers just finished their programme last week.


Each team serves for three weeks. The main focus of each team is to support numeracy and literacy skills of students under the guidance of principals and teachers.

But they have done many other different things in the community in the past from putting rat poison around Takitumu Conservation area and cutting back paths, making bookshelves for libraries, supporting Te Kainga and Are Pa Metua, building gardens and painting schools, building ramps for people in the community who cannot walk well and repairing wheels.

Holzschuh says the wide eyes and proud smiles of a student that has conquered a challenging task is the best feeling of all.

Now at the age of 68 and a widow, Holzschuh has two sons and two grandchildren who want to travel to the Cook Islands one day.

There’s just a small matter of coronavirus to deal with, then she’ll be back …


1 comment

  • Comment Link Michele Gran Friday, 17 April 2020 06:42 posted by Michele Gran

    Thank you for this lovely article about a lovely woman working on a lovely island with lovely children. Ellen is the quintessential volunteer - big heart, open mind, and full of ideas. We're so proud to have her as a Global Volunteer. We greatly value and honor all who she has served over the years, and am so very grateful for our partnership with the Cook Islands people. I hope hundreds of others who read this article will be inspired to follow in her compassionate footsteps!

Leave a comment