PEOPLE are a big factor in deciding whether a country or holiday destination will be revisited and as the saying goes — the first impression is a lasting and decisive one.
For California couple David and Ann Cooper, the decision to choose Fiji as the destination to celebrate 20 years of blissful marriage in 2005 was one that has changed their lives forever.
In fact, they have been visiting the country three times a year — racking up well deserved frequent flyer points while making a discernible difference to local rural communities.
"We arrived here and went to the Yasawas and immediately fell in love with the people. The people were just incredible and the islands were so beautiful," the duo said.
Fiji was everything the couple dreamt it would be; clear blue skies, unrelenting sunshine, turquoise waters and white sandy beaches — an earthly paradise.
However, not ones to tread the tourist path and seeking meaningful cultural experiences and a peek into real Fijian life, the Coopers ventured into villages and settlements and were immediately struck by the lack of kindergartens or preschools in many of the areas that they visited.
"We could see there was a real need for early childhood education (ECE). At that point we didn't understand it fully. We just saw the need but we didn't know how we could help. I remember saying 'God, I know I can help them but I don't know how.' As a former ECE teacher, my heart went out to the children'," Mrs Cooper recounted.
The couple approached Christian church ministries in the US on their return but were informed that outreach did not extend deep into the Pacific Islands.
"We knew one of the immediate needs was books but books were so expensive to ship. So we just prayed and prayed about it and two years later, we were invited to visit Fiji with a medical team that was going to Buca Bay and that was the trip where God revealed to us a way that we could help. That's when we understood that most children in villages did not start school until they were six years old," the duo said.
The Coopers were struck by the fact that most children had not seen basic items American kids took for granted.
"They had never seen crayons and all the things that we have at home that our children take for granted. So on that trip we went to a village called Vunikura and after introductions and protocol with the chief, we told them that we had been praying about Fiji and the Lord had led us to their village but we did not know how we could help. And it was on that note that a woman in Vunikura named Ana said she had been praying for a kindergarten teacher to come for many years and she had been trying to teach the four and five-year-olds in her village using colours and nature and counting with sticks. That's when the realisation hit us. We knew then why we were brought there and how we could help," the Christian duo said.
The Coopers made a decision to return to Fiji later that same year and to bring much-needed material like crayons, colours and books and they established their first kindergarten at Vunikura Village in Buca Bay on Vanua Levu in 2008.
"We established 501C3 which is a non-profit organisation in California and the Fiji Kinde Project was born. We have been coming to Fiji three times a year since 2008, working with rural communities and the Ministry of Education to identify areas in need of ECE centres and we have been blessed with volunteers putting their hands up and paying their own way to come to Fiji and assist us with material and training teachers," said Mrs Cooper.
Apart from visits by ECE teachers and concerned friends and relatives from the US, the Coopers have also managed to entice education students from Pepperdine University during their spring break.
"It's a great blessing to have these students come along and gain invaluable experience by providing continuing education to local volunteers and teachers at our kindies and they also help with replenishing supplies to the kindies that they volunteer at," the couple shared.
The Fiji Kinde Project began through prayer with one ECE established in Vunikura and has blossomed into 70 kindergartens across the country from Vanua Levu to Viti Levu through the Yasawas and as far away as Lau.
The Coopers believe that early childhood education is integral to building an empowered nation. But despite their outstanding effort, the California couple do not take any credit for their amazing feat.
"All glory and honour goes to God. He started this project by bringing us here. He pierced our hearts and showed us the need and He paved the way and made it all happen. We are but his instruments and we are humbled and touched that God chose us to do this work," they said.
Anyone interested in being a part of the Fiji Kinde Project can contact the organisation at www.fijikindeproject.com.