For Grace Clark, volunteering with VSA has delivered more gifts than she ever imagined.
“It’s the cultural exchange and sharing of ideas that I enjoy”. Having just completed her university degree, spending time in the Pacific has served as an introduction to the working world. And most importantly, the work she’s doing in Samoa’s capital, Apia, is contributing towards a future career in international development and foreign aid.
“A number of people choose VSA as a pathway into humanitarian work,” says the University of Otago graduate. “I completed a Bachelor of Arts in politics and global studies, and it seemed like a great pathway for me to take. I applied for a couple of roles on the VSA website, and even though I wasn’t sure if I was experienced enough for the role I now have; I absolutely love what I’m doing.”
Grace works as a Youth Programme Mentor at Samoa’s Family Health Association (SFHA), whose mandate is to deliver family planning and reproductive health services. In any environment, asking youth to open up about sexual health is a challenge – in Samoa, particularly so. “It’s considered a very private topic and isn’t really spoken about, even between friends. Yet, we know it’s happening; teen pregnancies are an issue, and the SFHA clinics are important,” Grace explains.
Grace’s role so far has included helping the SFHA recruit youth for its volunteer committee to run outreach programmes across Samoa to fill key committee positions, help run sessions on facilitation techniques, strategize on the best way to have conversations with young people on sexual health topics and continue to build momentum within the community, where the work the SFHA does is both valued and necessary.
Reaching out to the youth and allowing them to engage with the association without shame or stigma, is an ongoing goal of the youth volunteer team. Establishing social media platforms has been one important way of connecting with this target audience. Since arriving in Apia, Grace has helped set up Facebook, Instagram and TikTok accounts – “Everyone has a phone, everyone has data. Most villages in Samoa have a sign that tells you which network offers the best coverage,” she says.
Grace has recently led the team to work on a series of videos encouraging young adults to visit the clinic for things like contraception advice or sexual health concerns. “This threw up a whole bunch of new questions. Even though the message is aimed at 16- or 17-year-olds, in Samoan culture, this is still considered to be a young age group to be talking about sexual health, so ultimately, we’ve had to reconsider the age group of our video creators. For instance, do we choose a woman who is 19 or 20 years old?” However, I was advised otherwise by the team and told, “’She needs to be 22. And married.’ It’s tough.”
Grace’s Christian background has been useful in understanding how this deeply religious country views sex and sexuality. “One of the foundational aspects of my degree was learning about cross-cultural communication, which has helped a lot. This knowledge allows me to respond better to unexpected cultural differences, and to ask questions. But I think I’ve also learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. I definitely have more empathy than I did before.”
Attending bible studies in Samoa has allowed Grace to integrate into the community, and she’s made friends through her Zumba classes, and at work.
“Samoans are extremely hospitable, as you would imagine. But although the novelty of being in a new cultural environment is great at the beginning, as time goes on, you can sometimes feel like an outsider, or continue to be treated like a tourist. You want to say “’Hey, I live here! I work here!’”
Midway through her assignment, Grace’s Samoan counterpart – another Grace, as it happens, says the arrangement with VSA is already a success. “By helping recruit youth for the volunteer committee, we are ensuring that there’s a dedicated team to run outreach programs across Samoa. These programs are crucial in engaging directly with the youth and delivering family planning and reproductive health services to the community,” says Grace Aumua, SFHA Youth Officer.
Grace Aumua coordinates training sessions on sexual reproductive health and rights issues for the team of youth volunteers and supervises youth volunteer field activities. “Grace Clark has taught me how to use Canva and other applications, and how to make presentations. She fits right into the team, she never procrastinates - she works hard on everything we discuss and do...
“This collaborative work will promote youth rights and voices in the community, increase access to vital sexual reproductive health services, and contribute to a healthier and more informed community in Samoa. I’m so grateful VSA has sent Grace to us. She has so many creative ideas and is very open with her skills and knowledge.”
“Well,” adds Grace Clark, “we learn from each other! I’m just here to help lay the groundwork so that the youth volunteer team continues to thrive.”
Afternoons on RNZ recently conducted a radio interview with Grace Clark to mark the occasion of VSA's 60 years of service around the world. Listen to the session to learn more about how Grace, along with SFHA, is making a positive impact in the lives of Samoan youth.