Published on 22nd July 2015
Henrietta McNeill grew up living in different Pacific countries, a sun-soaked childhood that sounds idyllic. But being exposed to the realities of the Pacific, including poverty and hardship, inspired her to return to work with her former neighbours to give more people a chance at a better life.
Now, the primary school she once attended in Apia is not far from where she’s working on assignment with Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA).
McNeill has already achieved a lot. She was on the shortlist, alongside Lorde, for Young New Zealander of the Year in 2014, recognising her work with global youth. She has worked at the United Nations and European Parliament on youth issues, and been a New Zealand representative to the Y20 – the youth version of the G20.
Currently, McNeill is working with the Samoa Association of Manufacturers and Exporters (SAME). She is making submissions to the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the Samoan Government.
While volunteering is principally about helping others, McNeill says she’s getting plenty out of her assignment, too. “I’ve been able to meet so many people and make great connections. And getting involved in the community outside of my assignment has become a highlight.”
McNeill plays violin and viola, and has brought her skills to the National Orchestra of Samoa, a scheme run by the Ministry of Education to expand musical knowledge. Nine months ago, most of the orchestra members hadn’t touched a classical instrument. “It’s a really exciting experience to be involved with a freshly formed national orchestra.”
McNeill gives master classes to adult players, who then teach classes of around 50 school children. Despite the lack of resources, the programme is popular: “You have lots of kids gathered around two cellos having a go.”
VSA has been sending volunteers to Samoa for 50 years, beginning not long after Sir Ed Hillary founded the organisation in 1962. Back then, volunteers were fresh out of school, and normally took up teaching posts. Now, VSA sends people with all sorts of expertise, ranging from legal advisers to medical staff, engineers to educators. Assignments are typically between three months and two years long, with flights, accommodation, and a modest living allowance covered by VSA.
McNeill says, “Being a VSA volunteer means that you can contribute in a way that really uses your skills to help – and you pass those skills on, so you leave people more capable than they were before.”