Five years ago, Patricia Heffernan was working as an HR executive for Courts Fiji Ltd. Today, having completed further studies in education at USP, she is a teacher at Gospel School for the Deaf and could not be happier about her career change. As RCSE learned during our visit this week, Gospel, the only school for deaf children in the South Pacific, is full of many such dedicated teachers.
Founded on January 23, 1999, Gospel Deaf School first opened classes at the Samabula Gospel Chapel with 13 students. The school is an outgrowth of the Fiji Deaf Ministry started by Ms Vivienne Harland, a deaf woman originally from England, who resided in Fiji for more than 45 years.
To raise funds to establish a deaf school, Ms Harland set up a tour for churches in New Zealand and Australia. The response was overwhelming, and enough money was donated to establish the Harland Deaf Ministry Trust and start the building of the Gospel School for the Deaf in 1999. The school building was completed in 2004.
The school now has a total of 48 students from around Fiji, as well as a number of students from Kiribati, and one from the Solomon Islands. According to Head Teacher, Ms Laisa Raiqeu, ‘We have had students from Nauru, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Myanmar in the past. No child is denied admission at the school because of ethnicity, race or religion, and no student is ever turned away for financial reasons.’
The school is a home away from home for the students, who also board at the Gospel hostel.
Students at the deaf school are not separated by class, but rather by language ability and age. Many students go on to Gospel High School where a sign-language translator assists them in attending mainstream classes. They also have the option to go into vocational training.
Unfortunately, because of lack of awareness or understanding about disabilities among parents, many deaf children in the Pacific are just kept at home and do not attend schools. RCSE members met a few students who had not come to Gospel until they were 11 or even as old as 14.
As the early-years teacher, Ms Felicity Ali, told RCSE members, ‘When the students come in, they’ve never been in an educational setting before, they don’t know how to behave, they have no manners. It’s so amazing to see the changes in them after only one month. They sit nicely, they raise their hands.’
Members who attended this week’s meeting were very moved and inspired by the work going on at Gospel and are eager to help however we can. Teachers highlighted a number of needs which our club intends to address soon, including:
- maintenance/repair for some of the school’s computers
- fuel, food and fees for Room 3 students to take a field trip to Kula Bird Park (they are studying rainforests)
- stationaries, colours, colouring books, scrapbooks etc. for 7 youngest students
- sign language dictionaries for the school
We also suggested some awareness materials and potentially an ‘Open Day’ at the school, which RCSE could help organize, to raise awareness about childhood disability, engage parents, provide fun activities for the students and fundraise for the school. We look forward to the rest of the club’s support with these activities in the months ahead.