Father-daughter duo donate time and supplies to Fiji

July 28, 2014

By Neil Pierson

Hot showers and cold drinks are among the things John and Emily Ball have in abundance at home that they didn’t have during a two-week stay in Fiji.
John Ball, a Sammamish resident and Microsoft employee, and his daughter, an Eastlake High School senior-to-be, traveled to the South Pacific island nation last month. They were part of a 25-member crew with Humanitarian Experience for Youth, a Utah-based nonprofit organization that serves impoverished areas in 10 nations around the globe.
The Balls, who are natives of Sydney, Australia, aren’t first-time humanitarian workers. They lived in Beijing, China, for two years, where Emily and many of her friends with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints volunteered at orphanages, donating their time and supplies.
Emily learned about HEFY last summer from some family friends, and began researching the group with her mother, Kareena.
“Immediately I was drawn to Fiji, because that’s where my mom lived for a couple years of her life,” Emily said.
At first, she wasn’t sure whether she’d be able to go to Fiji, since HEFY only guaranteed 20 spots for younger volunteers – ages 16-19. Those spots were filled, but additional teenagers were allowed to serve if their parents came along.
“It was really Emily’s idea, to be honest,” John said. “It was something that Emily had organized, and I was just lucky to be able to accompany the trip.”
The main goal of the trip was to construct sanitary toilets for the residents of Taci, a 250-person village on Viti Levu, the most populous of the Fijian islands.
Most of the villagers – except for a tribal chief, the Balls said – were using primitive outhouses prior to the HEFY group’s arrival. The conditions were harsh: Holes in the ground with nothing more than rusting iron walls that provided meager privacy.
“It’s actually infecting all the soil, and it leaches out and is actually causing health issues,” John said, explaining the group built toilets and septic systems for six different families.
After arriving on Viti Levu and taking some time to get to know each other, the workers took a four-hour bus ride to the opposite side of the island to reach Taci. There, the two-week project consisted of digging holes, pouring cement, moving and stacking cinder blocks, framing and painting.
It was difficult but rewarding work, the Balls said, and they became fast friends with the Fijians. Working alongside two other teens, the Balls served an unorthodox family. Their matriarch, known as Mama Una, not only had children and grandchildren of her own, but had adopted several kids whose parents had either died or abandoned them.
“Definitely, the sense of family is a lot stronger than it is here (in the U.S.),” Emily said. “Everyone loves everyone like a sibling, whether they’re related or not.”
Food wasn’t plentiful, but the villagers were happy to share their daily catch from the ocean. The workers ate a batch of crabs for breakfast, and a shark for lunch.
And they were constantly entertained by the children. The boys climbed coconut trees, and even captured a mongoose by luring it into bamboo trap with a piece of the sweet fruit.
One of the Balls’ favorite memories was a visit to the local school. They posed for tons of photos, and gave many of the preschool-aged children a ride home on their bus.
“First, it was crazy getting off the bus, because all the little kids ran and charged the bus,” Emily said.
“It was like we were rock-and-roll stars,” John added.
Many of the villagers spoke basic English, Emily said, although conversations weren’t always easy.
However, since tourism is such a large part of the Fijian economy – and most tourists come from first-world countries like the U.S. – English is a key component of today’s school system.
The Balls were surprised by the overwhelming presence of religion. In Taci, most residents were Methodists, and they woke each day at 4 a.m. to pray. At noon, large drums in the center of the village signaled another prayer time.
For John, there was a simple but overpowering reminder to take home.
“You come back and you think, ‘We are so blessed and we are so lucky.’ But the thing that’s striking is, even though they have so little, they’re so happy …
“I think the message for me is, it’s not necessarily what you have that actually makes you happy. It’s what you do with it, and how you help other people.”

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