Ellie Virgona: In the field as a Palms volunteer

Ellie (wearing East Timorese tais) with studentsBy Edwina Hall

First published in KAIROS, vol. 22  no. 21 13 – 26 November 2011, p.27

Ellie Virgona had always dreamed of doing mission work.  In 2008, Ellie’s dream became a reality when this bank teller-turned teacher packed her bags for a two-year stint in East Timor with Palms Australia, a global volunteering organisation that aims to reduce poverty.

So, how does one go from banking to teaching to volunteering in East Timor?  For Ellie it was a question of fulfilment and a matter of finding what her true calling was.

“About 10 years ago I decided to become a teacher and I always knew that mission work was going to be a part of that as it has always been a dream I have carried,” she said.

“In banking I was restless, looking for something that would fill me and was purposeful. I’m very much a faith-driven person; it’s a big thing to leave your job, but I looked for guidance from God.

“I was propelled to look for something more meaningful – I found out what that was when I went to teach at St John the Baptist Primary School in Koo Wee Rup.”

Having found fulfilment in teaching, Ellie still yearned to live out her faith through mission work. So, when an ad for Palms Australia came up at her local parish, she applied.

Signing up for two years of volunteer work in East Timor is a huge thing to do physically, mentally and emotionally.  For Ellie it would prove to be a powerful experience.

“My job in Gleno, which is in the Ermera district of East Timor, was to show my students how to teach English to a class of children in a structured way with limited resources.

“I would travel out to remote schools and support teachers in the classroom.  Communication takes a lot of time.  Australia doesn’t value time like they do.  You have to listen first to what they need and want.

“Anyone can walk into East Timor with $20,000 and build a school and then they walk out and the building is not used for the purpose for which it was built.  It is about what is sustainable in the end.”

Aside from the lack of formal training of many teachers in East Timor, and large class sizes – which often number between 40 and 50 children – education in East Timor faces many challenges.

“The average teacher in East Timor walks two hours to get to school, and a lot of them are volunteers,” Ellie said.  “During the wet seasons schooling is irregular as the children often help with coffee picking, which is their livelihood.  For most young people who live far away, education is an irregular thing; they may only attend once a week.

Ellie said the teachers she met were inspiring.

“They had a passion to educate youth in East Timor, where there is such a high level of unemployment.

“Parents who are employed know the importance of education and tell the children that it is their future.”

As well as working with Timorese teachers, Ellie also taught community workers employed by the local district and young people who had finished high school.

“My students were just incredibly aware of the opportunity. My volunteer work was free, it didn’t cost them and it didn’t matter if they had money or not. They were very conscious of having an English-speaking person around and enjoyed the opportunity to talk to a native English speaker.

“I had a great sense of respect and admiration for these people who had lived through the fierceness of war. They got on with living. Hope for them was in living and the belief that there was a better future to come.”

As with anything in life, Ellie’s posting to East Timor had both its challenges and rewards.

“There were tough experiences that I faced being a white person, with demands that people would expect you to give into,” she said. “It was not easy to say ‘no, I don’t have money to give you’.”  She said the biggest challenge was loneliness and isolation from the familiarity of her own culture. However she greatly appreciated the “incredible” East Timorese hospitality and approach to community.

“It is a much slower pace and people are central,” she said. “They highly value one another and I am much more conscious now to sit with my friends here and give them my time.”

Ellie said it was her Catholic faith, and sense of answering a call, that motivated her to do mission work.

“My prayer to God kept me there and kept me strong and it was my prayer and faith that helped me to see differently.

“I hope to inspire other people. Living of faith is an everyday thing and the challenges are constant. I will always carry East Timor in my heart.”

Ellie Virgona with students she taught in Gleno, East Timor.

Photo supplied by Marguerite Ryan. Photo by Isobel Soares

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The key to community is the acceptance, in fact the celebration of our individual and cultural differences. It is also the key to world peace. - M. Scott Peck