A few weeks ago, I was presented with a Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Local Hero Award.
Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, Eileen Mueller and Kiwibank CE,Paul Brock
These awards are given to kiwis who make a difference in their communities through volunteer work.
So what did I do?
Over the past seven years, I’ve organised numerous community service projects in my role as Director of Public Affairs for my church, but the highlight has to be ‘Books For Fiji.’
Books For Fiji: In 2011, I ran a campaign that collected over 45,000 second hand books, which were donated to 82 schools in outlying islands of Fiji. See the video below.
Books for Fiji came about after I found out that Her Excellency Ms Mere Tora, Acting Head of Mission for the Fijian High Commission (Wellington, New Zealand) bought books at garage sales and school fairs all year long. Every year at Christmas when she visited Fiji, Ms Tora took boxes of books home and donated them to local schools.
I was impressed with her dedication to children’s literacy and wanted to help.
Although my initial idea was to collect a few boxes of books to give to Ms Tora, my vision grew as enthusiasm from the kiwis spurred me into action. Books came flooding in. Local schools cleared out their libraries and donated boxes packed with books. Business donated stationery and provided free advertising. The media jumped on board, and books kept piling up. The community wanted to help raise the English literacy of Fijian children.
Secretary of Fijian High Commission Niraj Mudaliar, Mayor Celia Wade-Brown and Eileen Mueller with the Mayor’s childhood books that she donated to Fijian school children to improve their literacy
Wellington Mayor Her Worship Celia Wade-Brown donated her childhood books, and Porirua Mayor His Worship Nick Leggett provided his libraries as collection points. All across the lower North Island of New Zealand, Mormon Helping Hands volunteers took donation boxes to their schools, workplaces and local supermarkets.
A deluge of donations came in. Then the hard work began. We sorted every book by hand, categorizing them into subject matter or, for fiction books, age categories. We created a mix of books for each school, so they received a balanced shipment containing board books, early readers, chapter books, novels, encyclopedias, dictionaries and reference books about a variety of topics.
Sorting 43,000 books!
I worked with the Fijian government to ensure we targeted the most needy schools. Then we shipped the books out the door and sighed in relief that the hard work was over!
While the books were en route to Fiji, a camera crew from church headquarters became interested in our project. I met them in Fiji to present the first shipment of books to a school on Bau Island, the chiefly island of Fiji – an area steeped in prestige and tradition.
The best part of the entire project was seeing the children unpack their books and start reading. They opened the boxes, and with wonder in their eyes, each took a book off the top, sat down on the grass and started reading. They didn’t rummage through the boxes or yell in excitement. They just sat down and started reading.
Their quiet page turning bought more joy into my heart than any shouts of excitement could have. They wanted those books. They loved those books. They were reading English books and had previously had none on their island. They were being taught English, but had no materials to read. Their literacy could take a leap forward, thanks to the kindness of their neighbours – kiwis in New Zealand.
How can we make a difference?
Eileen with 101 items made for Wellington Neonatal Unit.
Often a need is right under our noses. We don’t have to organise thousands of books to make a difference in the lives of those around us. If you see a need, contact a local volunteer organisation or charity and ask how you can help.
I have been lucky enough to have Mormon Helping Hands volunteers enthusiastically embrace every project I’ve organised. We’ve quilted for neonatal babies, cleaned the local homeless shelter (Wellington Night Shelter), baked cookies for its guests, and assembled hygiene kits for them. Thousands of trees have been planted across the region by keen volunteers, schools have been made over – not just tidied, but demolition work done, buildings, rooves and libraries painted, chairs upholstered, and carpet laid. Volunteers have blazed trails, mulched and weeded in the hot sun, and battled with gorse (thorny bushes) to provide recreational area for the local community.
Community service is also about building relationships with those you would never otherwise meet. For two years I was a member of The Wellington Interfaith Council Executive, putting time and energy into building more love and understanding between those of different faiths. We talked together, planted trees together, sang and danced together, and walked in each others shoes a little as we learned more about one another. It was a rewarding and fulfilling experience to see Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindu, Buddhists, Sikhs and Baha’i planting trees on the slopes of Wellington, laughing and getting to know one another.
Planting, trail blazing, blackberry eradication and planting in 2013 with local rangers, politicians and a few volunteers. (Eileen is far right, back row)
It was humbling to accept my New Zealander of the Year Local Hero medal, knowing that although I had brainstormed and organised these projects, none of them would have happened without hundreds of volunteers seeing the vision of a better community and giving their time and effort to make it happen.
I’d like to thank my generous husband and cool kids. Without their support and enthusiastic participation, I would never have gotten one project off the ground. Thanks to them a childhood dream I’d had of helping those in a less wealthy country has come to fruition.
Cook Strait News ran a story here about my Local Hero award.
I’d also like to thank politicians, church leaders and the many organisations that have assisted with projects. My thanks and deep appreciation go to the amazing helpers who have donated their time, sweat and service to help make our community a better place.
You can be a local hero too
We are all part of the jigsaw which makes up our community, our country and our world. I encourage you to look around, see a need, and contact a local organisation to see how you can help to make our world a better place. Who knows, maybe one day you will be a local hero too!
Article on Mormon newsroom
More information about New Zealander of the Year Awards can be found here.