Growing Together – The Pele Island School Project

Story and Photography by Danielle Diehm


Family and community mean different things to different people. It is not everyday that a 16 year-old Australian can claim to be part of a family on Pele Island, but for class 10 students at Shearwater Steiner School in Mullumbimby, that is exactly the case.

A relationship between these two unlikely tribes began back in 2007, when the class 10 teachers and students were looking at ways of giving back to the community. The school had previously visited Vanuatu and Pele and was wondering how they could shift the focus from an overseas excursion to something a bit more meaningful for all involved.

The school contacted the Pele community, meetings were arranged between the villages and the school, a partnership was formed and ‘The Pele Island project’ was born.

Vanuatu Children

The first project consisted of building a bungalow to help provide an income for the villages of Warasifu and Launomoa. The bungalow would be rented out to solo-travellers, couples, artists and anyone looking to spend some time on a quiet little slice of paradise.

Once the idea was agreed upon, teachers Greg Parkes and Gabrielle Karkkainen found themselves with a lot to organise and only a few months to make it happen. Firstly, a design needed to be found; it had to be cyclone proof and sympathetic to island architecture and environment. Materials were sourced, a concrete block mold was made, and the villages set about preparing the site and making concrete blocks from coral, sand and cement. Meanwhile back in Australia, the class 10 students were busy fundraising for their three-week-trip and found themselves washing cars, walking dogs and running raffles to make sure they could achieve their goals while in Vanuatu.

Finally, after much hard work and preparation, the group from Shearwater touched down in Port Vila. Buzzing with excitement, they could not wait to experience what life on Pele would be like.

Pele Island Vanuatu

A scenic ride up the west coast of Efate took the school to Emua Wharf, where they were welcomed by Pele locals and taken by boat to the island, 7km from mainland Efate.

Many of the students had never been overseas before and despite months of preparation and lessons on cultural sensitivity, Bislama, history, geography, marine biology, construction and building skills, some students were apprehensive when they first set foot on Pele, an environment so different from where they came from.

They were each accommodated with local families and divided into three groups; science and marine conservation, which involved helping a marine scientist plant reef biscuits and tag turtles; teaching sports and arts at the Pele school; and the building team who would be constructing the bungalow. A roster was drawn up and the very next day they set to work, becoming part of their Ni-Vanuatu family and the Pele Island community.

It was far from plain sailing as none of the students were used to living an island life. Sunstroke, infected coral cuts and tropical ulcers put a damper on the daily life of the students, some even needing to be hospitalized. “I think they went through stages,” reflects Greg Parkes. “The first few days they were in a bit of shock, by week two many of them had stomach upsets and were feeling homesick and missing family and friends, by the final week nobody wanted to go back to Australia!”

Nonetheless, the bungalow was finished the day before the school group was due to leave and it was named ‘Wara-namoa’ in honour of the villages. A celebration was held that night with plenty of feasting, singing, dancing and tearful hugs between the students and their host families.

Since those early days of the Pele project, things between the school and their adopted island home have continued to flourish and most years a group of 30 or so students come back to Pele. A second bungalow was constructed on the very next trip and education courses were held in tourism management, book keeping and first aid. The Australian students took turns holding English classes and teaching reading, games, sport and crafts to the village kids. They also made furniture, milled timber and helped around the island with anything they could, just like any other member of the village.

Pele Island People

A few years ago, the Pele Island community was lucky enough to secure funding for a teacher. The hitch was that they could only take up this offer if they had a designated school building in which to hold classes. Once again, Shearwater Steiner School jumped in to help where needed and a kindergarten classroom was constructed. Community education classes were held in cleaning, cooking, health awareness and maintenance.

After many happy trips, it was last year, in March 2015 that disaster struck. Category five cyclone Pam came calling on Vanuatu, unleashing its full force on Pele Island. Being such a remote and exposed little island, Pele and its people had nowhere to hide and the damage was considerable. The kindergarten building was destroyed and although the bungalows were untouched, the people lost their sources of food and water, with many losing everything but the clothes they were wearing.

The students and wider Mullumbimby community were devastated to hear the news that affected them at a deeply personal level. It took five days after the cyclone but contact was eventually made between Mullumbimby and Pele, much to the relief of the students. The people were sick, dehydrated and had very little rice to keep the whole community fed.

Shearwater Mullumbimby School

The school had planned another trip in April, just a few short weeks post-cyclone but as their health and safety could not be guaranteed and Pele was in no state to take on extra mouths to feed, the trip had to be cancelled. Everyone involved was disappointed, after such a big planning process and many months spent fundraising for the trip, they felt helpless to do anything to help the people they had grown to look on as family. The decision was made to send the money fundraised for the April trip to help the community with their immediate needs. Several of the senior girls, who had been on the Pele project when they were in class 10, put together an extra fundraising event and concert. A full container was filled with food, water, clothing and building materials donated by the community. The girls flew to Port Vila to track down the container and go through the process of getting it released from customs. The goods then needed to be transported over to the other side of the island, taken by boat to Pele and the precious cargo delivered to the people who were most in need, an amazing undertaking for 17 year-old women from a small country town. They spent weeks distributing the donations equally to the 150-odd people of the island and continued to keep the school back in Australia informed of progress in Vanuatu.

Pele is slowly recovering from their encounter with Pam and the next trip is planned to take place this April with the priority to re-build the kindergarten building. Future plans are also in place to build a women’s center, a project driven by an ex-student who participated in one of the first school trips to Pele and is now a midwife living on the island and married to one of the young local men. The women’s center will provide education on women’s health, be a safe-haven for victims of domestic violence and will have birthing facilities.

Pele School

The exchange goes both ways across the ocean and the school plans to fund Pele youngsters to attend Shearwater to complete their education, as well as hosting several local men visiting the school to undertake seasonal work on the school’s extensive vegetable gardens.

Shearwater’s philosophy has always been learning through hands-on practice, in real-life and giving back to the community. Within the Pele Island program, everyone is a winner, with students greatly benefiting from this exchange. When the Australian students involved in the program arrive home from their adventure, the parents comment that their kids seem like different people. More mature, independent, helpful, and appreciative of all they have, with a stronger sense of helping humanity. Their time and work on Pele Island is something these young people take with them as they go out into the world and it somehow shapes the adults they become and the lives they lead after school. Shearwater and Pele have formed a life-long bond that is sure to continue to benefit all involved for many years to come.

Mullumbimby is an eclectic hinterland town in the hills near Byron Bay, on the North Coast of New South Wales, 90 minutes south of Brisbane, Australia.

More information on Shearwater- The Mullumbimby Steiner School can be found at

Pele Island is located 7 km off the coast of North Efate, near Havanah Harbour, a 50-minute drive from Port Vila, in Vanuatu.