Changing lives one book at a time

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Bula Books
Jennifer Healey shows a photo of herself in Fiji with 13-year-old student Anna who opened the Sydney Catholic’s eyes to the scarcity of literacy resources in the tiny nation. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

A group of young Sydney Catholics are changing lives by sending 15,000 donated books to Fiji for children learning to read.

Jennifer Healey, youth coordinator at Our Lady of the Angels parish in Rouse Hill, set up Bula Books Fiji (named after the local friendly greeting) to get books into the hands of children living in remote islands of the tiny nation who have next to no resources for their education.

With help from friends Nicole Daher, Gabrielle Murphy, Elizabeth Meyer and Talia Morris, and the generosity of parishes and schools across Sydney, the 20-year-old has collected 140 boxes of good-quality second-hand children’s books and books for young teenagers—everything from the Adventures of Spot to multiple sets of the Harry Potter series.

Bula Books Fiji
Some of the 140 boxes of books ready to be dispatched to book-starved schools in Fiji by Jennifer Healey and her team of fellow volunteers. PHOTO: Jennifer Healey

But Jennifer says it’s her own life that has been changed the most. She’s fallen in love with empowering young people and is on her way to becoming a teacher.

“We went on a family holiday to Fiji in July 2017 and as part of our cruise we visited schools in the Yasawa islands, off the north-west coast of Fiji which didn’t have any of the resources we are blessed to have in Australia,” she explained.

The Healeys saw first-hand the long-term effects of Cyclone Winston which destroyed many schools on Fiji’s Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands in February 2016. It decimated already-limited educational resources in remote areas.

“My mum had gone with one of the older girls, Anna, at one school to look at what they said was the library and it was just three shelves in a bookcase,” said Jennifer.

“They didn’t have textbooks and only one notebook to use for their whole school life.”

Mum and I were a bit upset about it, and Mum said she was going to get some materials together to send to Anna. I thought why don’t I do the same but do it with books?

On return, Jennifer who had been uncertain about her future after discontinuing a Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science at UTS set up a Facebook page, put the word out, got six boxes of books together and returned with them to visit Anna at Naviti District School in September.

This time she was a volunteer with charity Vinaka Fiji, an organisation that supports schools and teachers by assisting with classroom teaching, in English, based on the Fijian national curriculum. “The children were so excited, they were like, ‘This is amazing!’” said Jennifer. “I just really enjoyed being with them and reading with them and that’s what made me decide to be a teacher.”

Bula Books
Jennifer Healey, founder of Bula Books Fiji. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Back home Jennifer enrolled in a Bachelor of Health and Physical Education and things really took off when she put a notice in a parish bulletin at St Bernadette’s Castle Hill asking for second-hand books, colouring books and games.

Offers came flooding in from nearly 20 schools around the country, community groups and individuals. All Hallows Primary School, Five Dock, jumped at the opportunity to help children 3000kms away learn to read, donating hundreds of books. The school, along with St Cecilia’s Primary School Balgowlah contributed the largest donations.

Fran Taylor, St Cecilia’s principal, said the pupils had been invited to bring a book from home that they no longer needed. “Through our Good Sams Days held each term we try to encourage the children to give just for the joy of giving,” she said.

“It was really beautiful to see them bring in four or five books each that they hoped the children in Fiji would love just as much as they had.”

Jennifer and her friends have already raised $1500 of the $4200 required to ship the books to Fiji’s poorest schools via Vinaka Fiji, mostly through her Bula Books Fiji GoFundMe page, with each box costing $30 to send.

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