Fresh fruit such as papaya, orange, coconut and pineapple is easy to find everywhere on the islands of Fiji.
Fresh water? That is another story — one for which a promising new chapter is being written with the help of Russell and Wendy Perry of La Grande.
The husband and wife team recently returned from an 18-month stay in Fiji where they worked as volunteers for LDS Charities, an arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that provides humanitarian services throughout the world.
The Perrys, making their first trip to Fiji, helped LDS Charities address a shortage of fresh water in areas near the coastlines of Fiji’s islands, including a site known as Savarua
The couple, serving as administrators for LDS Charities, arranged for freshwater wells to be drilled in Savarua Settlement and for a network of pipe-filled trenches to be dug. The well system is now operating, providing many Fijians with fresh and safe drinking water, and it is hoped that similar systems can be built in other parts of Fiji.
The Perrys also helped many of Fiji’s schools get fresh drinking water by arranging for them to receive equipment for rainwater collection, storage and purification systems. The rainwater is later cleansed with filters that are needed because water can be contaminated while being stored and running through pipes.
“We helped them with rain harvest,” Russell Perry said.
Prior to the installation of theses systems, the Fijians assisted by LDS Charities often got much of their drinking water from mud puddles and other less than sanitary sites. These sources are sometimes contaminated with human waste, leading to outbreaks of typhoid fever, including one which occurred while the Perrys were in Fiji.
Russell Perry said the looks on the faces of Fijians after their drinking water systems begin operating is priceless.
“They were so grateful,” he said. “To them it is like a miracle.”
A miracle of their own making. Equipment and materials for the wells and the creation of the rain harvest systems were
provided by LDS Charities but much of the work needed to install them was done by the Fijians who will benefit from them. This approach applies to all LDS Charities projects, because the goal of LDS Charities is to teach others to help themselves.
Wendy Perry explained that trying to help by simply doing everything for others makes them dependent on outsiders and unable to
“In the process of helping others, we don’t want to hurt them,” she said.
She added that when people build something, they have a better understanding of it and are better able to maintain and repair it when needed.
The only time labor for LDS Charities projects was not done by Fijians was when the wells were drilled. An outside company was brought in for the well drilling because of the expertise required.
It is ironic that many portions of Fiji lack clean drinking water since the interior of its largest islands, Biti Lebu and Banva Lebu, are filled with mountain springs. They produce water so pure and refreshing that it is bottled and sold worldwide as Fiji Water. Unfortunately, funding problems, distances and other factors are preventing this water from being distributed to islands in Fiji short of fresh water, Russell Perry said.
Much of the Perrys’ work in Fiji also helped address medical issues. The couple administered a major dispensary project, through which medical supplies including stethoscopes, blood pressure monitors and baby scales were distributed to 60 dispensaries in one district of Fiji. About $45,000 worth of equipment was delivered to elated health care professionals.
“It brought tears to the eyes of health care workers who have worked with nothing for years,” Russell Perry said.
The Perrys also oversaw the construction of three evacuation shelters. The shelters, which also serve as community centers, are often needed because cyclones frequently leave Fijians without a place to live.
“Cyclones destroy many homes,” Wendy Perry said.
Fiji was hit by three cyclones the first year the Perrys were there in 2018. One of the worst to hit Fiji in recent memory was Cyclone Winston, which struck in 2016.
“Some people who lost their homes to Winston are still living in tents,” Wendy Perry said.
LDS Charities volunteers are attempting to lessen the need for evacuation sites by teaching Fijians steps they can take to make their homes more resistant to cyclones. These include making their homes out of cinderblocks rather than tin, which is most commonly done in many parts of Fiji. Tin is more vulnerable in the face of heavy winds than cinder blocks.
Education was another major focus of Russell and Wendy Perry in Fiji. They arranged for the distribution of furniture and books to many schools. Some of the books were new and others were donated by schools in New Zealand. All of the books distributed to schools were in English.
“The government wants children to learn English,” Russell Perry said.
English is one of three languages spoken in Fiji, along with Fijian and Hindi.
English, a remnant of British colonial rule over the islands, was the sole official language until 1997 and today is widely used in government, business and education.
A Fijian school assisted by LDS Charities via technology was its school for the blind. LDS Charities, with the help of Russell and Wendy Perry, provided new computers to the school designed for those with vision impairments, which have many audio communications features. The school already had such computers but they were badly in need of upgrades.
Russell Perry said that watching the school’s students operate the computers is inspiring.
“You would have no idea that they have vision impairments,” he said.
LDS Charities also boosted schools by providing them with diesel-powered electrical generators that power lights, making
evening activities possible.
“They are especially helpful at boarding schools,” Russell Perry said.
Fiji is about 1,000 miles northeast of New Zealand and is composed of about 330 islands, about 110 of which have permanent inhabitants. Fiji’s largest islands are places of extreme meteorological contrast.
“They have a dry side and wet side. They are like Eastern and Western Oregon,” Russell Perry said.
The Perrys visited villages on many of these islands during their stay in Fiji. At each village they received warm welcomes.
“Everyone was so kind,” Russell Perry said, adding that he noticed Fijians seem to remain upbeat regardless of the hardships they face.
“Their general disposition is upbeat,” Russell Perry said.
The Perrys, who have six children and 20 grandchildren, made many treasured friendships during their stay in Fiji and hope someday to return.
“We feel as close to some as we do members of our family,” Russell Perry said.
The Perrys do not look upon themselves as individuals who did anything special in Fiji. They view the countless people who work behind the scenes to support LDS Charities, including those who donate to it financially, as the real heroes.
“They make it possible. We are just their hands,” Wendy Perry said.