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Make the Most of a Stopover

Volunteering in the Pacific

One day as I was flipping through an artists’ supply magazine I spied an offer of free art supplies to any artist who would volunteer to teach schoolchildren in a Third World country. “Hey,” I thought, racing for the world atlas,” that could mean us!” (An artist friend and I were already scheduled to fly to New Zealand to paint, with a free stopover on a Pacific island of our choice.)

My magnifying glass picked out the Cook Islands, some pinpoints in the vast Pacific Ocean. Rarotonga is the largest of the islands and the capital. It also happens to be, according to James Michener, the “most beautiful island in the Pacific.”

Cheap Joes, an art supply company in Boone, NC, responded to my request: “Sure! What do you need and how much? Some of the supplies we donate are recycled and some are new. After we hear from you, we can mail them right out to you.”

We emailed the Cook Islands Tourist Office. No problem, responded Mr. Gelling Jack, principal of the Avarua grammar school on Rarotonga. He would gratefully arrange for us to teach a few classes. Class size? About 30 children.

Within a week, Cheap Joes sent us a large heavy box with watercolor paints, brushes, crayons, oil pastels, pencils, erasers, and lots of paper.

My friend, Vee, an art teacher whose mission is to spread Albert Schweitzer’s message of compassion for all living creatures, arranged for her illustrated children’s coloring book about Schweitzer to be translated and printed into Cook Islands’ Maori. She with her evangelical message and I with the art supply boxes (along with a bathing suit and sunscreen) were off!

Rarotonga is mountainous island, rimmed by pearl-white beaches and turquoise lagoons. You can drive around the island’s palm-studded perimeter in 45 minutes. We found a little “pole house” (beachside house on stilts) to rent for $500 per month, and in between snorkeling in the aquarium-like waters where colorful tropical fish watch you watching them, we planned our short-term curriculum.

On our first teaching day, 30 almond-eyed and barefoot children hushed as we walked into the classroom bearing our art supplies and Schweitzer coloring books. A few dogs shuffled out and collapsed in the shade of jacaranda trees. The teacher, a smiling Polynesian woman in a flamboyant red, green, and white print dress and yellow rubber thong slippers, welcomed us.

Thirty voices echoed her welcome. Boisterously.

We showed them the supplies and explained their use. On watercolor paper I drew a picture of a striped cat with a flower lei (ei in Rarotongan) around its neck in light-colored wax crayon that was nearly invisible. When I flooded the picture with dark watercolors the floribunda feline appeared as if by magic—an example of “resist” painting. The children shouted, clapped their hands, and laughed with delight.

Next, Vee showed her coloring book about Schweitzer and explained how everyone must have compassion for all animals. One little boy eagerly raised his hand, straining to be noticed. “Yes,” she acknowleged, do you have an example of ‘compassion for all life’?”

“Oh, yes, teacher,” he announced proudly. “My dog was chasing our chicken. So I threw rocks at him till he ran away. I saved the chicken’s life!”

Everyone shouted and clapped for “compassion for all life.”

Vee smiled weakly.

The children were so excited over the new art supplies that they sang and danced their local war chants for us, shouting and huffing to the ancient rhythms of their Pacific (however, not strictly speaking, uh, pacific) culture.

THEODOSIA GREENE is a widely published freelance writer who lives in Sedona, AZ.