When South Surrey teen Elizabeth Tichelman left the Semiahmoo Peninsula more than three months ago destined for a remote area of Fiji, both she and her mother, Tracy, shared a few tears at the airport.
After all, it was the first time the then-17-year-old had been away from home for any length of time, and she was venturing all alone to the other side of the globe, where she’d be volunteering among strangers at a small primary school.
However, the mild sadness Tichelman felt when she set out on her journey was nothing compared to what she experienced last week on the day she left Koroinasau Primary School, its 87 students and fellow teachers.
“It was a hundred times harder leaving the school than leaving home,” Tichelman, now 18, said, pointing out photos on a laptop of her and the children taken the day she left, tears streaming down their faces.
A recent Elgin Park Secondary graduate, Tichelman came upon the opportunity to volunteer abroad in one of her senior-year classes, when she was introduced to a program called Latitude Global Volunteering.
She had initially planned to start school at UBC in the fall, but negotiated a deal with her parents that would allow her to spend three months away, then start post-secondary in January.
After an application and interview process, Tichelman was accepted to the program and arrived in Fiji late August.
It didn’t take long for Tichelman to settle in – though she was originally told she’d be teaching English, she soon found out she’d be responsible for Class 8 (12- and 13-year-olds), and her curriculum would also include math and science.
“You kind of learn when you’re there to just go with it,” Tichelman said of the challenge of teaching students just a few years younger than her. “It was fun to prove to myself that I could do it.”
Along with her volunteer partner, Australian Ella Sheehan, Tichelman set out to not only educate the students at the school, but to help improve their lives.
Prior to leaving South Surrey, she collected donations for the school and was able to buy a new printer as well as pay boarding fees for the 36 students who live at the school full-time, a necessity for many of the children who live in a village up to five hours away.
“These kids that are maybe six or seven years old are taking their horses or even walking, getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to leave for school because they can’t pay for boarding,” Tichelman said. “That was a big thing for me, these kids are just amazing.”
Upon realizing the financial challenges faced by students and their families, Tichelman and Sheehan set out to find sponsors to pay for a year’s worth of boarding fees for every child – a cost of around $70 Canadian per student.
With parents’ permission, the duo created a short video about the school, which they’ve posted online. They also took head shots and created biographies for all the students, and created a Facebook group where potential sponsors could learn more about the fundraising project.
They’ve recruited 15 sponsors already for the endeavour – dubbed the Global Smile Project – and plan to continue fundraising efforts with the hopes of returning next year to expand the boarding house.
“Ideally, all the students should be at the school because they live so far away, but they only have room for 36 of them right now,” Tichelman explained.
In addition to igniting a philanthropic spark, the experience also offered Tichelman a new perspective on how people around the world live. Running water at the school was considered a luxury, and the students bathed in the nearby river.
“These kids don’t have a lot, but they’re all so happy all the time,” she said.
“I definitely realized that I take a lot of things for granted. I’m more aware of myself and the things I do and the way I behave – it’s definitely changed me for the better.”
As she looks ahead to her studies at UBC in the new year – she’s registered for general arts classes, but is now also looking into humanitarian studies – Tichelman credits the students themselves for providing her with a “life-changing experience.”
“I don’t know if I could have had the impact on them that they had on me,” she said.
The video Tichelman and Sheehan produced can be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wstu_tmXXSg
To find out more about Tichelman’s fundraising project, email firstname.lastname@example.org