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Teaching your kids the value of volunteering and helping others is a great way to expand their horizons. One family went beyond the pool in Fiji.

WORDS & PICTURES: Debbie Neilson-Hunter

On arrival at the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort, I’m left in no doubt that this idyllic Pacific Island nation invented the smile. From the arrivals hall at Nadi International Airport to the fruity welcome drink at the deluxe resort on Viti Levu’s sundrenched Coral Coast (and everywhere I go afterwards), countless rows of white teeth beam my way.

Their smiles are contagious. I’m soon smiling eagerly back, the trials and tribulations of my life back home fading with each cheerful greeting of “Bula!”

What’s truly remarkable is that these iconic smiles haven’t faded, not even after recent floods and the destructive impact of Cyclone Winston – the worst in Fiji’s modern history. Just weeks before my arrival, more than 108 villages in the north of the country had been completely flattened by Winston’s ferocious winds. Across the nation, schools lost roofs and tens of thousands of people were left homeless. Damage to infrastructure and crops was estimated at more than FJD$1 billion (AU$640 million).

With the help of communities that were unaffected and international aid, including Australia’s, the people of Fiji quickly got on with rebuilding and welcoming tourists back.

“What can people do to assist Fiji? Choose Fiji as your next holiday destination,” urges Peter Hopgood, general manager at the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort.

Holidaying guests can play a big part in helping Fiji get back on its feet, he says. Fiji is just one destination where travellers can volunteer to help the local community. There is always somewhere in the world that needs our help.

Hotels with a heart play a big part in this. Initiatives such as Outrigger’s Community Tourism Project to build a new kindergarten in the lush Sigatoka Valley (the ‘salad bowl’ of Fiji) present a great opportunity to engage with the community while giving a little back.

Up to 18 preschool children currently learn in a leaky one-room hut (formerly the community meeting hall) on the grounds of the Conua District School.

Expected to cost FJD$80,000 (AU$51,000) and be completed by the end of the year, the gift of a much-needed modern kindergarten and playground will cater for up to 30 four-, five- and six-year-olds.

For a small fee of FJD$100 (AU$64) per adult and FJD$60 (AU$38) per child - money that goes towards the purchase of building materials - guests can give up a few hours of their holiday to help the local community work on the project.

It's not all hard labour. Guests spend time meeting and interacting with the students and enjoy exclusive insight into village life, local facilities, markets and attractions. A picnic lunch is included at the Tavuni Hill Fort, a national archaeological site.

For those with limited time, donations of resources such as books, pens and sporting goods are also welcomed.

The new kindergarten is the second project of its kind established by Peter Hopgood, who was honoured by the Fijian tourist industry for his passionate contribution to tourism and the local community last year.

In 2015, the resort's Community Tourism Project helped build a new cyclone-proof community meeting and school hall. Money has also been raised to help fix roofs, and paint and build fences for the school.

"Everyone wins" says Hopgood, adding that around 18-20 per cent of return guests, including families, now specifically come to Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort just to help.

As a member of the Coral Coast Chapter of the Fiji Islands Hotel and Tourism Association (involving other local resorts such as The Warwick, The Naviti Resort and Shangri-La's Fijian Resort & Spa), Peter Hopgood has also been instrumental in helping raise funds for a new maternity unit and the extension of the women's ward at the local Sigatoka Hospital (helping to significantly cut the number of newborn deaths) as well as an upgrade to its A&E department and outpatient facilities.

Outrigger also supports swimming great Shane Gould's drowning prevention programme. Born in Fiji, the Aussie Olympic legend visits twice a year to educate the local children, who often cross rivers to get to school, on preventative drowning techniques.

During our week's holiday we watched children barely out of nappies and dressed in their Sunday best serenading guests with a few church hymns - their harmonies blending perfectly with the setting sun and the approaching calm of a tropical evening. I've heard these choirs before but this time, thanks to the time we'd spent volunteering, I really felt part of the community singing them.

This article appeared in volume 8 of Five Star Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

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