More Top Stories

Rugby Union

Bigger and busier 2023: PM

31 December 2022

Rugby league

Moana target 2025 World Cup

11 November 2022

A legacy of learning and service

Monday 25 September 2023 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features, Weekend


A legacy of learning and service
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.

VSA 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 Bhutan.

“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 communities.”

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 lifestyles. 

“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 is today.”

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.

Myra Moeka’a-Patai, 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 said.

“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 team.”

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 tap into.

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.”