To give, or not to give

Sonja Larsen

The propellers of the twin otter coughed and stammered, quieting, as builder Don Darko and mechanic Kerry Toepfer descended onto the grassy airstrip that extended inland from the ocean. The cool ocean breeze danced around them. It was a surreal moment for the two men; they paused to take it all in.

Now, over 10 years later, they stood on the familiar airstrip of Craig Cove, on the volcanic island of Arnbrym, in tropical Vanuatu. Despite limited communication prior to their arrival, Darko and Toepfer were overwhelmed by the heartfelt receptions in three villages,

"Kerry and I are there with tears in our eyes," reaalls Darko, his aged voice melts softly. Slightly teary, Darko's eyes shine as he shares about the time they spent in Ambrym in June, 2011.

***

Darko and Toepfer have had a history in Vanuatu. 'Repeat supporters' could be an appropriate name for these two servicemen. Their Maranatha story began in 1982.

"We saw the state the place was in," says Darko, gently shaking his head. "The generator wasn't working, things needed fixing." Throughout the decades, the two men regularly led teams of volunteers out to these remote tropical locations to help perform essential repairs and maintenance. Then, around the turn of the millennium, fmances became difficult, and they took a break.

"We'd kind of given up," says Toepfer, reflecting on the difficulties they faced. "I also thought I got too old," says Darko.

Little did they know that in 10 years time, they would be back.

***

It was in October, 2010 that Toepfer, and his wife Carole ventured over to Vanuatu — this time for a holiday. Here, at some Seventh-day Adventist church gatherings, the Toepfers happened upon some old friends.

"Please can you get Don and come back to the school?" asked Esau Tawali, a church minister and previous teacher. Urgency was in his voice, and the pleas of other teachers. "Much work needs to be done at the school." For these Ni-Vanuatu locals, their main concern was the children. Darko shakes his head in wonder, marvelling at the persistence of the teachers. At 5.00 AM one morning in his Cooranbong home, Darko's home phone rang. It was Bakon — the head of the Maranatha school board.

"Mr Don, Mr Don!" Bakon chatted excitedly through the phone. "Please can you come? We need you desperately at Maranatha school."

"Oh what's wrong?" Dark° asked, not having heard from anyone in Vanuatu for almost 10 years.

'The roof now hemi bakarup finis," replied Bakon as he went on to list the repair and maintenance work the school needed.

"They kept ringing us," says Dark°, "saying: 'when are you coming?'

"I was thinking, 'Lord what do I do?' "says Darko, a desperate and sincere plea. From there everything started falling into place: the Toepfers happening upon the teachers in Vanuatu; persistent phone calls from local teachers; and their local church pastor Vadirn Butov's encouragement to the church, to be involved in mission. This was all the confirmation Darko and Toepfer needed.

"It all sort of made sense," Darko remembers of the series of events that led the pair back to Maranatha School.

Within six months, plans were made and fundraising efforts were put in place.

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"People have been mighty generous to us," Darko says, his face beaming. `.,1/have sent across over $30,000 to buy all this material."

A retired woman who had recently sold her property gave Darko a cheque for $12,500 — the estimated amount needed to put a new roof on the school.

One Saturday, the men promoted the cause in the local Avondale Memorial Church. "The church has lots of people who have been missionaries in what was then known as New Hebrides," says Darko.

In the following months at church, donations in rustic yellow envelopes flowed in — with several people giving more than $1000 each. A man even donated a generator to the school.

Local businesses were also eager to help with the cause: Eton Building Materials willingly donated building supplies; a friend at the Dora Creek Pharmacy gave a first aid kit; and within three hours, Sanitarium — after looking at the proposal — donated food supplies.

"The Lord has been so good," acknowledges Darko, his head bowed humbly.

* **

As preparations are underway in Australia, and the strong team of men — Don Darko, Kerry Toepfer, Steven Jobson, David Brockelsby, John Medhurst, Albert Finlay and Desmond Vaughun prepare to embark on a three week island adventure, the hard yards are also taking place in Vanuatu. The team will arrive in Vanuatu on October 16, 2011 xaetly' 34.y

one dayfter the new school complex at Marallata:Ivaa_

On Ambiym, Bakon has mustered up the support of the surrounding villages of Lalinda, Sanesup, and Baiap, and others who are determined to see the school make progress. Along with the construction of 80 new beds for Maranatha on the island of Santo, the Vanuatu government is contributing about four million Vatu (approximately AUD $43,000) for the school's water supply and a computer. Men from over four villages around Maranatha are ready to give full support when the "whiteman" arrive.

"It is surprising what men can do, but money is the problem for them," Darko says. Now the copra is up a bit they might have a bit of money."

A current problem on islands like Ambiym is the increasing cultivation of marijuana As a means of income to pay for school fees, Toepfer adds: "It is easier money than cutting copra."

"I can see things coming up again," says Darko optimistically. "Bakon told me again that come the New Year, the Vanuatu Government recognise the potential in Maranatha School — and will be paying all the teachers not just one."

In order to do this however, the school requires help to build it to the point where it can achieve accreditation and receive more government funding. While the assistance of the seven Australians may not be long term, the urgency of the situation calls for immediate help. The education of up to 80 students depends on it.

"One of the teachers there wasn't born when we first went to Ambrym — her mother was pregnant with her; now she's a teacher," says Toepfer. Another past student says Toepfer is a lawyer. "He goes around and represents Ni-Vanuatu citizens who need legal aid."

***

On Ambrym they are always welcomed like celebrities.

"Bakon said to me this morning (at 6.45 AM) 'when you come we're gonna have one big party'. And I said 'we don't need anything like that'. I'm happy to just come and do the job.

"But it's their way of thanking you for coming." The island ventures have been rewarding.

"Once you've finished the job and gone away, you feel absolutely blessed," says Toepfer. "And I'd just as soon sneak away and not face the music of all the praise and glory."

While some may not know the full value of the work that goes on in the island, well known for its volcanoes and spirit worship, Darko echoes Mother Teresa when she said: 'When no one sees what you are doing — keep on doing the good work'.

After all, everyone has something to offer.

To live is to give. In the comfort of Darko's Cooranbong home — surprisingly not one of the 100 homes he built in the area — the humble lives of Don Darko and Kerry Toepfer testify to this — clearly showing that there are no limits to giving.