And onwards to Fiji!
If you haven’t read Toronto to Fiji Part 1, take a read here.
I chose to volunteer with Projects Abroad for a month. It offered a nutrition program that built on my passion for health education and public health, and offered flexible start dates. They have an office in Toronto which made it easy for me to connect with staff and attend an open house. Their director was extremely helpful and made every effort to answer all of my questions and concerns before I signed up.
When I arrived at Nadi International airport in Fiji, I was greeted by my program supervisor and another staff member who drove me to my host family’s home. My friends warned me that Fiji would be really hot but I don’t think I understood what that meant until the heat and humidity filled my pores. I considered myself a fairly well traveled person, but admittedly, I was a bit overwhelmed for the first week, and it took me awhile to adjust to my new surroundings. I knew the only way to get over it, was to fully embrace everything and jump in headfirst!
From 8:30 a.m to 4:30 p.m I worked with a small but mighty nutrition team, under the leadership of a very passionate supervisor. She taught me about the Fiji health care system, chronic diseases that impact Fijians, and the major barriers/facilitators to achieving a healthy lifestyle in Fiji. A few days a week, we prepared materials, analyzed data, and created presentations in the office. Once our materials were ready, we went into the community…this is where the fun really began. Our days were spent working in small rural villages, with corporate wellness programs, and in schools teaching kids about nutrition and healthy living.
As I began to immerse myself in my new life, the Fijian culture, and the program, I realized that based on my work experience, I had a lot more to offer that could help strengthen the program. I assisted with health screening (taking blood pressure, blood sugar, BMI, body fat percentage), nutrition counseling, teaching fitness classes, and created a wellness program for individuals to help make diet and lifestyle changes. I pushed for the importance of health education and developed presentations based on local resources about chronic diseases relevant to Fijians, such as diabetes and hypertension.
As a completely uncoordinated person, I was challenged with the task of learning Zumba routines, to teach as part of our fitness program. I love fitness and working out but have never attended a Zumba class, in fact it’s safe to say they scare me!
I managed to get over my fears, and I’m proud to say I did learn the routines and even started attending Zumba classes at the local gym. Like I said, volunteering brings out the best in you. There was nothing more incredible than working with my team and teaching fitness to men, women and children in a rural village in the middle of tall lush green mountains. We also led cooking demonstrations, that showed them how to use vegetables from their large gardens to create healthy meals that complimented their new fitness routine. Fijians are the happiest, most welcoming people you could ever imagine. Seeing their progress and enthusiasm grow over the weeks was so inspiring – we really had made a difference in their lives.
For me, this experience combined everything I love about working in public health, learning and connecting with the people of Fiji was an eye-opening experience that has peaked an interest in global health issues, and how I can use my skills and knowledge to help those in areas where resources are limited.
While volunteering, you realize you’re working with a lot of like minded people, so it’s s easy to make friends with others on your team/ and within your organization. We spent our free time exploring all that Fiji had to offer and fell in love with our surroundings. I also joined a gym, made local friends, and met other Canadians who had moved to Fiji, all who I continue to keep in touch with. In addition to gaining valuable life experiences, I had the opportunity to travel and see a part of the world through a very local lens. When I arrived in Fiji, I thought, oh god, what have I gotten myself into? But when it came time to leave, there’s nothing that saddened my heart more than being away from a beautiful country doing the work I loved.
My time in Fiji will be remembered as an amazing, and a very special, life experience. I met so many volunteers from around the world and regardless of their age and background, I learned something from each of them, and some of whom I’m still in touch with regularly.
If you’re interested on reading more about my volunteering and travel experience, check out my blog.
About the author
Growing up, Shilpa has always been passionate about health and wellness. Following her degree in Applied Human Nutrition from The University of Guelph, and MSc in Health Promotion from King’s College at The University of London in England, she returned to Toronto to begin her career journey. Alongside her passion for globetrotting, she’s been actively working in various aspects of public health and is a dedicated volunteer assisting with diabetes prevention education and outreach throughout the Greater Toronto Area.