When South Australian teacher Bridget Kennelly first heard about an opportunity to travel to the remote Pacific island nation of Kiribati with other teachers as part of a social justice outreach experience, she knew she wanted to be part of it.
“I didn’t have to think twice,” she said.
Bridget, a teacher at St James’ Primary School, Jamestown, was “fascinated by Kiribati”; she wanted to learn more about the country’s vulnerable environmental situation and was keen to engage with the local people and experience their culture.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, but I felt that it would be enriching to my life to be able to experience a different way of life,” she said.
Bridget was among a group of 12 teachers from the Port Pirie Diocese in South Australia who recently returned from a 12-day outreach experience in Kiribati – an experience which came about because of a partnership established last year between Catholic Education in the Port Pirie Diocese and the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
Known as the “Kiribati Commitment”, the program aims to provide young teachers in the Port Pirie Diocese with an opportunity to live and work alongside the Good Samaritan Sisters in Kiribati and to be immersed in broader community life.
Brenda Keenan, Director of Catholic Education in the Port Pirie Diocese, who has been instrumental in making the “Kiribati Commitment” a reality, said the emphasis is on mutual learning and enrichment for all involved.
She described this year’s inaugural outreach experience to the village of Abaokoro, where a community of three i-Kiribati sisters run the Good Samaritan Early Learning Childhood Centre, as “an outstanding success”.
“From the outset I knew that it was going to be very good, but my expectations were met one-hundred-times-fold – and I had extremely high expectations,” she said.
“The outreach experience, on so many different levels, was fantastic.”
The 12 teachers conveyed similar sentiments, too.
Erin McIntee, from Samaritan College, Whyalla, said the experience was “enriching, eye-opening, heart-warming, confronting and life-changing”.
“I gained a greater perspective on the simplicity of education. So much of the time we focus on the new and great, when really the process of sharing information and experience can occur in the most humble of settings to the same degree of effect,” said Erin.
Bridget Castle from Caritas College, Port Augusta, was “challenged” to imagine herself living in a one-room thatched hut with her whole family: “No walls for protection from the elements. No fresh drinking water straight out of a tap or refrigeration to store food”.
The teachers expressed gratitude for the warm welcome and hospitality they received from the local people, especially the sisters.
“I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the people, but in particular the Good Samaritan Sisters; they were just so beautiful,” said Kate Kilpatrick from St Mark’s College, Port Pirie.
“Never have I met sisters so young and full of life. Everything about them, the way they welcome, nurture the young and reach out to the marginalised epitomises Catholicism.”
For Bridget Kennelly, the experience in Kiribati has had a significant impact on her.
“It gave me new eyes to see my life,” she said.
She described her time away as like “a spiritual health check – time to actually sit and be still and to appreciate God’s creation, and being with people without the technology and the distractions, and just really taking stock of things and reflecting”.
Twelve days in Kiribati was not enough for Bridget. She found the experience so good –“brilliant” in fact – that during her long-service leave from school next year, she hopes to return for a month to work with the sisters at the Good Samaritan Early Childhood Learning Centre.
“I feel very passionate about returning and helping the sisters,” she said.
The small community of Good Samaritan Sisters in Abaokoro – Sisters Kakare Biita, Tibwau Matia and Tuata Terawete – said they appreciated their time with the teachers from Port Pirie. The experience affirmed them in their own role as teachers and they gained new energy and enthusiasm for their work with the children.
“I really enjoyed the teachers’ involvement with us at Abaokoro,” said Sister Tibwau Matia.
“They were happy to work with the children and I learned a lot from watching and talking with them. I enjoyed learning the new games they taught the children.”
Tibwau was struck by the teachers’ interest in her life, community and culture.
“It was lovely that they joined us for prayer in the mornings and evenings. They were happy to know more about me and they shared their family stories. They wanted to meet the people in the village and learn the local craft, especially weaving the hand fans,” she said.
Brenda Keenan said the Kiribati outreach program will continue to evolve over the coming years.
“There will be future and ongoing opportunities for staff from across our diocesan schools to travel and witness this amazing Pacific country and its people, and there will be opportunities for the i-Kiribati Good Samaritan Sisters to visit our diocese and schools,” she said.
“Our partnership is two-ways (both ways), as we continue to cultivate and grow our cross-cultural learnings, friendships and understandings.”