Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 6, 2004
Taking treasures to the islands
St. Matthew parishioners offer their skills to Volunteer International Christian Service
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
A small chain of islands dotting the equator, rife with turquoise lagoons and swaying coconut trees might sound idyllic. But for Larry and Patti Ofner, going to the remote Republic of Kiribati for two years will be anything but a trip to paradise.
The former music ministers at St. Matthew Parish heeded a call to serve after attending a recent presentation by Spiritan Father Bob Colburn, administrator of Volunteer International Christian Service.
They looked at each other, confirmed they were near enough to retirement, and decided to do it.
And off they go
Beginning Sept. 4, the Ofners will travel to the tiny island of Abaiang, one of 33 atolls in the republic, to offer their time, talent and treasure. Larry is a former teacher and principal of St. Angela Elementary School. Until last January, Patti was a registered nurse at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.
"I was talking to my sister recently and I remembered when I was a teenager I used to think that a person should do two years of peaceful service rather than two years of military service," said Patti, 60. "All my life I have wanted to do something like this. Now I will do my two years."
VICS is a lay volunteer program providing professional and technical personnel the opportunity to assist and work alongside the people of developing countries around the world. Medical personnel, licensed trades people, teachers and construction supervisors are volunteers VICS hopes to give overseas assignments.
The Ofners had wanted to travel to a mission and serve, but commitments to family and their careers prevented them from acting. However, after listening to Colburn, they found what seemed like the perfect opportunity.
"When Father Colburn spoke, I knew this is something I just had to do," Patti said. "And to turn to my life's partner and realize he wanted to do it as well, felt incredible."
Once called the Gilbert Islands, Kiribati (pronounced kir-ee-bas) is situated in the corner of Micronesia on the equator, roughly mid-way between Australia and Hawaii. The main island is Tarawa, the capital, home to some 38,000 residents. Such a population density rivals that of Hong Kong.
Most people live on less that $1 a day. They must conserve sparse rainfall for fresh water. AIDS has become a problem from some fishermen who return after months at sea.
"We have had so many people let us know that if they can help in any way, to let them know," said Larry, 60. "We have such a strong support network. They say what we are doing is great. It gives us encouragement because we are leaving behind everyone and everything we know."
Larry's expertise in education will be a welcome addition to a school system comprised mainly of underqualified teachers.
Patti will be the island nurse. The couple has already procured two bicycles as their means of transport.
There is a high mortality rate among the children in the republic, Patti said. Disease can run rampant if things are not sterilized properly.
Desire to learn
"There is a definite need for better medical and educational services where we are going," she said.
"The teachers they have are only one or two years out of high school. The people want a better education to help them get off the island. They want to immigrate to Australia, for example."
Rice, fish and coconut are staples on the island. It sounds like paradise until you consider that a person needs to inspect his meal for worms and insect feces.
Fifty per cent of the islanders are Catholic. There is a major presence of priests and nuns (Sisters of Good Shepherd) who come mainly from Australia to minister through Church and the mission schools.
There is no Internet access on Abaiang, but the Ofners hope to go to Tarawa weekly, to check in with the Knights of Columbus, VICS and their parish, back home.
If he could, Larry, a former science teacher, would fashion a telephone from two coconuts and a piece of string to keep in contact with the rest of the world. As it is, he will rely mainly on the power of prayer.
"What we will need most is prayer support from people," he said. "It may be difficult at times, and we may get depressed.
"But everyone's prayers will help us to keep working at our project."