SIXTY-seven-year old Soloveni Turogo and his wife, Amelia, are proud owners of a three-bedroom cyclone-proof home, complete with an adjacent kitchen and bathroom, thanks to a group of volunteers who descended on their Delakavula settlement in northern Viti Levu for three months to live and rebuild their home for free.
The elderly couple, who live with their children and grandchildren in this largely sugarcane growing village, attend the local Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses at Dobuilevu, located along the Kings Rd, about 30 kilometres from Rakiraki town.
They, together with 16 other families in the area who lost their homes during Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston last February, are now proud owners of new houses built from floor to roof by a team of builders and helpers comprising local as well as overseas-based volunteers.
None of these volunteers got paid for their efforts, nor were the owners of the homes ranging one to two and three bedroom houses paid a single cent. The builders arrived with their own tents to sleep in, and food, which they happily shared with their local hosts.
Volunteers like Ryan Herman and his wife, who were in New Zealand when they heard of the devastation Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston caused in Fiji. The couple was also involved in similar rehabilitation work in the Philippines, as well as in Vanuatu.
At the height of the church's reconstruction project, some 18 volunteers, some of them couples, travelled to Fiji from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the US and Vanuatu. They all paid for their own return travel.
In addition to assisting with the rebuilding of 17 homes in Dobuilevu, church volunteers have also completed 14 new cyclone-proof homes for church members on Koro in Lomaiviti. A group of builders and helpers spent three months on Koro. Building of these homes, comprising corrugated iron walls and concrete or timber floors continued this month at Nayawalevu, in the hinterlands of Ra Province, Ba, Tavua, Tailevu, Ovalau and Vanuabalavu in Lau Province.
"Straight after Cyclone Winston struck, our team of volunteers visited our brothers and sisters who were badly affected," explains Frank Coffin, co-ordinator of the local branch of Jehovah's Witnesses of Fiji.
"In their visits to Vanuabalavu, Taveuni, Koro, Ovalau and the northern and western regions of Viti Levu, not only were emergency supplies of food, water, clothing and temporary shelter distributed, but our teams also carried out assessments of the damage.
"This set the stage for the second phase of our assistance, where teams of local builders were dispatched to affected areas to carry out immediate repairs to homes that needed repairing. This has also been completed and now the team is into the third phase, which is the construction of homes for about 60 families in the cyclone ravaged regions."
For home construction, the church has commandeered half of the local Kingdom Hall compound in Vatuwaqa, near Suva, to act as the central home construction site.
A team of 25 volunteers constructed prefab homes at this site.
Once completed, these home frames are trucked to the building sites where teams of volunteers help erect the houses in no time. The entire reconstruction program from the design of the home phase to construction has all been done on a voluntary basis. Building engineers were consulted in the designs of the houses to make them strong and secure.
"It's quite a full-on operation, requiring constant co-ordination and management," says Mr Coffin.
"As to be expected sourcing housing materials has been a huge challenge, but with persistence and patience, assistance by various government departments, and not to mention Jehovah God's blessings, our teams are well on their way to providing a good strong and safe home for those who need them."
Materials for a one bedroom home is estimated to cost $US5500 ($F11,300) while a three bedroom house is costing US$10,000 ($F20,580), with funding provided through voluntary contributions by the church's world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.
Mr Coffin added that some of the families affected badly and had initially applied for the Fijian Government's Help for Home initiative, have returned their M-Paisa cards to the Ministry of Social Welfare and Poverty Alleviation.
"It is a loving gesture on the part of these members who were left homeless by TC Winston, as returning their M-Paisa cards would allow the Fijian Government to offer assistance to a lot more people who also needed help.
"We are also so grateful to our many brothers and sisters from overseas who answered our call for help, and gave of their own time, skills and resources to fly to Fiji at their own cost, to help us in our time of need.
"I speak on behalf of my brothers and sisters in Fiji, especially the hundreds of families among us who lost their homes and livelihood during Cyclone Winston in thanking the loving support and oversight from our governing body in the United States and the blessings and comfort of the God we serve, Jehovah."
* CORRECTION: A picture that appeared on Page 5 of our 8-page Winston liftout last week stated that it was a house being built by Habitat for Humanity. The house is in fact being built by volunteers and members of local Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. We regret any inconvenience caused.