Linda Agnew is Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at UNE. Although she is legally blind, Linda dedicates her spare time to helping the less fortunate. She shares how she and her local church group are assisting to improve Vanuatu’s education and healthcare systems.
What do you love most about your career?
I love the variety of being both a scientist and an academic. I am passionate about science, so as a researcher I enjoy the challenge of investigating the complexity of the immune system and as an educator, I hope to inspire my students to have an inquiring mind set for lifelong learning.
Which church are you involved with?
I am a practicing Christian, and I’m a member of the Armidale Church of Christ.
What prompted you to become a humanitarian?
There were a number of significant life events that led me to being involved in humanitarian work.
The first of these occurred at the end of 2005, when I was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy (a degenerative condition that causes blindness).
In dealing with the way losing my sight has altered my life (I am now legally blind), I resolved that I would not let it define who I am. So, I decided to get on with life and live it to the full, continuing to do the things I want to do.
Then about 4 years ago, I became convinced that my faith needed to be more than just a personal belief or something that was only exercised within the community of believers, but that it needed to be practical as well. My husband Warren and I had just visited my missionary brother, who at the time was working with refugees and displaced people in Europe.
We had the opportunity to work in a refugee centre and saw firsthand what a difference simple practical support can make in people’s lives. It was also the first time in my life that I had truly encountered abject poverty, and initially I felt completely helpless.
Many of us think that one person can’t do much to change such a huge problem or that we are not ‘qualified’ enough, but I have come to understand that one person can make a difference – and often it’s the simple things that have the biggest impact.
The things we take for granted, such as healthcare, education, clean water, food, shelter and clothing are some of the things that make a huge difference in the lives of those who are suffering. I decided that even if I could only change one person’s life for the better, then that would be something.
How did you start assisting students in Vanuatu?
On returning home from Europe, I contacted Global Mission Partners, the mission arm of Churches of Christ, and asked if there were any opportunities to provide practical assistance in our region. As a result of those discussions, we identified a great need at Ranwadi Christian College on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu. As an educator, it was the perfect fit for me.
In 2010 I led a work team of twenty-three from Armidale Church of Christ, and we spent 10 days at Ranwadi. With the support of the Armidale community we raised $20,000, which built a classroom and transported donated resources to the school.
While there, we helped out around the school and at a neighbouring primary school. It was an amazing experience, and I couldn’t wait to get back there again. Warren and I returned last year, and we will be taking another team in July this year.
What would you like to achieve in Vanuatu?
Many Australians envisage Vanuatu as a lovely tropical holiday destination – which it is. However, that is not the complete picture. Vanuatu was accorded ‘UN Least Developed Country’ status in 1995. It is the third poorest country in the Pacific.
Vanuatu’s economy is based on small-scale subsistence farming, fishing and tourism. There is a great need to improve Vanuatu’s education and healthcare systems. Other pressing issues include a lack of employment, the growing impact of HIV/AIDS, a general vulnerability to mismanagement, and the impact of climate change.
Education is widely acknowledged as a passport to a better future and while primary education in Vanuatu is almost universal, it has been estimated that less than 25% of children continue to secondary school, and only 5% of the relevant age group is enrolled in tertiary education.
Secondary school education is not compulsory, and school enrolments and attendance are among the lowest in the Pacific. Many young people leave school without a complete education or useful skills, and the adult literacy rate is estimated to be as low as 33.5%.
The main problems are that schooling is expensive, and it is often difficult for children in remote rural areas to travel to school.
Improvements in secondary education are limited by shortages of trained teachers and facilities. In these schools, resources are extremely limited. At Ranwadi, most classes are taught with only one textbook (the teacher’s copy). The library shelves are almost empty, and the science room has very little equipment – and that which is there is broken or inadequate.
Most secondary schools in Vanuatu rely on funds given by AusAID (Australian government Agency for International Development), other agencies, NGOs and churches to enable the upgrading of facilities. There is an ongoing need for maintenance to keep these facilities usable.
By supporting Ranwadi College and other schools in Vanuatu, our aim is to make secondary education accessible to more children and in turn to encourage more students to pursue tertiary education or vocational training. We also want to equip these schools and provide professional development training for the teachers, so that the students receive a quality education – something that we in Australia consider a right, not a privilege.
How can readers help?
We are currently raising funds for our next project, which will involve replacing some very rusty roofs on classrooms and dormitories. Donations towards this maintenance project are tax deductible.
We are also hoping to send additional, much needed resources to the school. Items include laptop computers, library books, textbooks, science laboratory equipment and classroom aids. Donations of suitable items would also be appreciated.