Good Samaritan Sister Rita Hayes, who spent many years living in Timor Leste, made her final trip back there recently. Together with Sonya Mears, Executive Director of the Good Samaritan Foundation, Rita visited both school students and tertiary scholars who have received Good Samaritan Foundation Scholarships to help them gain a good education and a hopeful future.
Although her days of visiting Timor might be over, Rita is still working on supporting the students, turning her attention to spearheading a laptop drive to help the students with their studies.
“We talked to the students and the thing they needed the most was a laptop,” Rita said. “It’s completely understandable. There would be few students in Australia attempting to write a thesis without the aid of a laptop.
“I know from my early days in Dili that trying to get the use of a decent laptop entailed waiting in a queue for some time and then finding the computer beyond use! On my next trip, I made sure that I brought my laptop with me. This option is not available to these students.”
Rita said one of the key purposes of her trip was to introduce Sonya, who is newly appointed to her role with the Foundation, to the students receiving the Foundation’s Scholarships, as well as local staff and collaborators.
“To understand the scholarship scheme, you really need to know the people and the place,” Rita said. “It was a wonderful opportunity for Sonya to see the people and interact with them.”
The Good Samaritan Foundation Scholarships are awarded to students attending the Catholic Secondary School of Nossa Senhora de Fatima, Our Lady of Fatima, known as NOSSEF, in the isolated mountain village of Railaco where Rita had lived for 15 years before returning to Australia in 2015.
The scholarship program, which began with the donation of $1000, now provides scholarships for 63 students each year at NOSEFF and about 80 tertiary students. Rita has visited each year (except during the COVID-19 pandemic) to meet with the students, check on the progress of existing scholars, and present the scholarship payments.
Arriving in Railaco in September for this year’s visit, Rita and Sonya were treated to a spectacular welcome from the students.
“They were lined up all the way from the road to the school, holding up placards of welcome,” Rita said. “The kids were in great form, with big smiles and laughing; just gorgeous.
“When we arrived at the school, we went down to the canteen covered area, which was built during the time I was there. The students had hung banners and welcomed us with traditional dancing and singing. It was very, very moving for me and wonderful for Sonya to see.”
This was followed by a robust rendition of the East Timorese National Anthem, with all students singing loudly and proudly, and then a ‘festa’ or celebratory shared meal. “It was all just beautiful,” Rita said.
While in Railaco, Rita and Sonya had meetings with most of last year’s tertiary graduates, who had travelled from Dili, where they are studying, to see them.
Many of them are now studying in areas of great need for their community, such as teaching and health care.
Scholarship students at the NOSSEF school are also doing well and the school is thriving under the care of the Principal, Father Hyoe Murayama SJ, Rita said.
“Not only are the students doing well academically at NOSSEF – their results in last year’s National Exam were excellent – but they are learning to take great care of their school grounds and the surrounding areas, thus learning in a very practical way the benefits and skills of ecology. The school really looks grand!”
Sonya said it was clear from the time they arrived how much the local people love Rita.
“The welcome they gave us was phenomenal,” she said. “All lined up with such happy faces and they had signs saying, ‘We love you Sr Rita!’.
“Straight away I could see the impact of the Good Samaritan presence there.”
As this was Sonya’s first trip to Timor Leste, she said the visit was primarily focused on “listening and learning”.
“Relationships with the people on the ground are really important in all of our scholarship programs,” Sonya said.
“And as I’ll be supporting Rita in those relationships going forward, it was a wonderful opportunity for Rita to introduce me to everybody.
“It was incredible to see the work being done at NOSSEF by the teachers and the staff. They’re very committed to seeing that their education efforts are going to make a positive difference to the students’ education and their lives.
“They’re very grateful for the scholarships and to the people who support the scholarships through their donations.”
Sonya said that after listening to the experience of the tertiary students, she too has returned home with a determination to try to source some second-hand laptops to help them with their studies.
“At the moment, they told us that in order to get their assignments done they have to walk an hour to the university with a USB and then home again. It’s really hard to store assignments and talk to their teachers about their work.
“I think in most countries, a laptop is seen as a basic tool of the trade for students and lots of schools here retire their old laptops, so we’re hoping to tap into that and see what we can do.
“That’s why a trip like this is so valuable. It’s about getting in touch with the students, knowing their needs, and making sure we’re doing the right thing for them on the ground at any given time, because needs do change.
“Meeting people face to face regularly allows us to keep having good conversations, which makes for a better program.
“I was really touched by my time in Timor Leste. As a colleague travelling with Rita, it was a treasured chance to see the Sisters’ way of doing things, their way of being, and it was precious time to get to know her as a friend. It is obvious that she has had a big impact on that local community.”
Sonya said the Good Samaritan Foundation would be raising funds across the Christmas period for its Scholarship Program in Timor Leste, the Philippines and Australia for next year and the years beyond.
She said if anyone can help donate second-hand laptops, they can get in touch with the Foundation by sending an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was published in the November 2023 edition of The Good Oil.