Staff and Volunteer Service Abroad Te Tūao Tāwāhi (VSA) 60 years anniversary. MELINA ETCHES/23092127
The New Zealand Volunteer Service Abroad Te Tūao Tāwāhi (VSA) has been operating in the Cook Islands for 60 years, providing support in education, health and well-being, and the environment. Cook Islands News senior journalist Melina Etches, who attended the organisation’s 60th anniversary last week, writes about its objectives and achievements.
was established in 1962, founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, a renowned mountaineer
and philanthropist from Aotearoa New Zealand.
Since 1977, 90 volunteers (88 in country, and two eVolunteering),
from Aotearoa have shared their skills and knowledge with the Cook Islands.
Fifty volunteers have been to the country since 2015.
The organisation facilitates volunteering
opportunities for New Zealanders to contribute their skills and expertise to development
projects in the Pacific and beyond.
Te Ipukurea Society’s Kelvin Passfield, Mere Raui MacDonald, Lydia Sijp, Twila Reuther, Myra Moeka’a-Patai, the chief executive officer of the Paepae Ropianga O Te Kavamani Office of the Public Service Commissioner, and Infrastructure Cook Islands head Elisabeth Wright-Koteka. MELINA ETCHES/23092122
Today VSA operates in the Pacific region and the
neighbouring countries Timor-Leste and Cambodia.
The Cook Islands VSA staff team include Tina Mackie, VSA
programming manager for Cook Islands and Tonga, James Uri-Puati, Cook Islands programme
advisor, and Samantha Puati.
VSA recently celebrated 60 years of operations in
Aotearoa New Zealand. VSA Cook Islands celebrated this milestone on Thursday at
the New Zealand High Commissioner’s Residence at Ngatipa.
In her opening address, Kirsten McFadden, VSA director
people, finance and workplace, acknowledged the VSA volunteers past and present.
James Uri-Puati, Cook Islands programme advisor Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA), New Zealand High Commissioner Tui Dewes, Sue Ngatokorua and Kirsten McFadden, the VSA director people finance and workplace. MELINA ETCHES/23092121
McFadden particularly noted Cook Islands residents Sue
Ngatokorua (nee Hawke), who was one of VSA’s first volunteers arriving in the
Cook Islands in 1977, and Anand Naidu, who was a volunteer in the Kingdom of
“By working together, we can all achieve our goals – this
applies to us as a VSA team, with our partners and for the communities we are
part of in the countries we work in,” McFadden said.
“We are one group who are dedicated to thriving
The Cook Islands programme began in 1977 with six teachers
arriving to support the implementation of the New Zealand School Certificate in
the Pa Enua.
Dean Kapi-Tangata, Sahara Lang, Mii Kino, Maraeura Peyroux and Eva Patai. MELINA ETCHES/23092123
The VSA programme expanded in the late 1980s to
support forestry and environmental work, and again around 2015 where its partners
focused on water, waste management, and family planning.
It has a unique health and wellbeing hub, creating a
resource of people with different skills in health and wellbeing that several
of VSA partners access to improve the services to communities.
Volunteers have also worked with the University of the
South Pacific Cook Islands Campus, small businesses and associations to improve
processes and procedures, and with young people to encourage sports and healthy
“We haven’t done this alone,” McFadden said while acknowledging
the support of their partners.
Celebrating the Volunteer Service Abroad Te Tūao Tāwāhi (VSA) 60 years anniversary. MELINA ETCHES/23092125
“VSA has proven our ability to adapt quickly to change
and we hold close connections to the many hands that make our community what it
Last year VSA had a record number of New Zealanders
apply to volunteer overseas.
“We want to ensure when they arrive, they are
supporting you in the best way they can,” McFadden said.
“They arrive to build capacity and capability and they
return changed for good with a greater understanding of your country and
friendships that will last a life-time.”
The VSA focus across their international programmes
are: education, economic and business development, health and wellbeing,
offsetting the impacts of climate change, caring for our environment for future
generations, and supporting food security and agriculture.
In the Cook Islands the programme is focused on
education, health and wellbeing, and the environment.
McFadden said VSA has hundreds of organisations with
strong ties in partnership including the Cook Islands and New Zealand.
Both governments support their programmes and
volunteer ethos, and VSA is thankful to the immigration team and others who
support the logistics of bringing volunteers to the Cook Islands.
McFadden hopes their work can leave a positive impact
on the community, people, and the nation of the Cook Islands.
“Nāu te rourou, nāku te rourou, ka ora ai te iwi –
With your basket of knowledge and ours, all of us will thrive. Together, we
work towards building a world with thriving communities, and because of you
all, we have already greatly impacted the lives of many,” she concluded.
chief executive officer of the Paepae Ropianga O Te Kavamani Office of the
Public Service Commissioner (OPSC), attested to the positive impact that VSA
has had in the Cook Islands public service.
Moeka’a-Patai said OPSC have been fortunate in
securing the services of three women, Milly Tamaki (2015-16) and Annika Lane
(2019), both of whom were policy advisors, and more recently Jackie Cronin as the
human resource advisor (2022-23).
VSA Cook Islands country manager Tina Mackie has
always been available to provide support to OPSC, she adds.
“These women have brought the values of
professionalism, dedication and service to their work with OPSC,” Moeka’a-Patai
“Their commitment to assisting us deliver our work
programmes on time has made a difference to the way we work.
“The willingness of the volunteers to share their
experiences and skills in a culturally sensitive way has built confidence in our
These volunteers have developed systems that capture OPSC’s
ideas on how to resolve some of their challenges, and have provided an insight
into some new or different ways to approach those issues.
Moeka’a-Patai said having someone from outside OPSC with vast experience in working with different organisations and systems and models, enabled ideas to be bounced off and “pick their brains” on best practices “because they listened to understand and not listen to respond”.
“The volunteers practiced non-judgmental listening by
setting aside their own biases or points of view.
“Although there were disagreements, the volunteers respected
that we had a certain culture and way of doing things and their role was to
guide us without judgement or jumping to conclusions and imposing their own
ideas or solutions on us.”
OPSC has advertised and promoted VSA within the public
service as an alternative source of skill sets for ministries and agencies to
Moeka’a-Patai recognised the contributions the volunteers
have made to OPSC, and also as women in the work place.
“They have come to another country and have left
another monument to the women of the Cook Islands through highlighting the
opportunities for career advancement that all women, including and in
particular Cook Islands women, can achieve.
“This is further attested to by the fact that these
women have come to our country after, in most cases, already undergoing
distinguished careers in their field of work.
“The legacy that our VSA volunteers have left us is
that learning is a life-long journey.”