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Fiji Time: 12:58 AM on Thursday 24 April

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Schoolies reciprocate wonderful Fijian hospitality

Shayal Devi
Tuesday, December 03, 2013

FOR most Australian students in their final school year, the end signals a time for merry-making in exotic destinations like Bali, and more recently Fiji.

Since the 1970s, Australian school leavers have been part of "schoolies week", an annual event in which scores of teenagers celebrate the end of exams by having endless parties where alcohol and music are the order of the day.

In recent years "schoolies week" has brought with it a negative image and drawn much criticism.

The use of alcohol and drugs usually leads to violence and fights, resulting in the arrest and hospitalisation of teenagers.

This has created a negative image of schoolies as being brash and party-loving teenagers.

All this is set to change from this year. Organisers have found a way to involve schoolies in something different, in a program where local schoolchildren can expect to benefit from the change.

The schoolies are taking time out to socialise with local schoolchildren as a means of giving back to Fijians for their wonderful hospitality.

This initiative is the brainchild of Australian schoolies travel provider Unleashed Travel, whose managing director Jot Lynas says the event is a cultural exchange program developed following student demand to connect further with the countries they visit.

"Students on previous trips with Unleashed Travel have always been so grateful for the hospitality provided by the Fijian community," he said.

"Many have approached me personally to explain how they would love to spend more time interacting with the locals on the islands and also give something back."

This desire has caught on to other Australian organisations. Newly formed non-profit sports organisation SOS Unleashed was among the first to help out the schoolies in their bid to give back to Fiji.

Beginning last week, officials from the organisation have been in the country doing their part in developing sports in Western Viti Levu.

Co-founder and chairman Peter Cole said they visited 44 rural schools distributing sporting gear.

"This was life-changing as the children's reactions were of joy, happiness, delight and thankfulness," he said.

"The total donation value is estimated to be around $340,000."

Mr Cole said in total, about 20,000 Fijian youths and children would benefit.

Apart from distributing sporting gear, a sports day was organised to allow schoolies and local children to integrate freely.

The first cultural exchange happened on Thursday last week at Natabua High School in Lautoka, which Mr Cole described as very successful.

"Almost 250 Australians and close to 800 locals participated.

"We had unstructured sports being played because the day was all about the children getting to know each other.

"Next week will be bigger and we are expecting more Australians kids to come."

Mr Cole said the public was not permitted to enter the events.

"It's exclusively for the clubs and schools that have gone through an application process with the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

"It's also exclusive to Australian Unleashed school leavers."

After the success of the inaugural cross-cultural sporting event, about 500 Australian schoolies are expected to arrive next week.