For the past three years, Helen Colla has been contributing tirelessly to the Don Bosco High School in Salelologa. A volunteer with Palms Australia and something of a self-professed ‘workaholic’, she has been using her wealth of knowledge and experience in Vocational Education and Training (VET) to help set up accredited training programs at the school, which will be a great boon for thousands of young people.

Palms Australia is an Australian organization that focuses on international development by giving priority to requests from grass-roots organizations that are seeking sustainable, community-based goals. Once a request for help has been made, the organization then considers what qualifications and experience will be required to get the job done, and searches for a willing Australian to ‘extend their palm’ and share their skills.

L-R: Christine (another Palms volunteer), Jacinta (Science & Maths Teacher), Helen and Kasileta (English & Buisness teacher)

It was Fr Mosese then, who began the process that saw Helen uproot her life and move to the Pacific. At the recommendation of the Samoa Qualification Authority (SQA) he sought the help of someone with experience in the VET sector, writing and setting up accredited training. The SQA has seen a great need in raising the technical skills and knowledge in Samoa to a level that is competitive with overseas standards, mainly New Zealand and Australia.

Education is valued in Samoa but often falls down on the priority list, especially for those from poor backgrounds, or who live in the more remote parts of Samoa. Don Bosco Salelologa is located on Savai’i the more distant and harder to access of Samoa’s two main islands. “Having accredited training available in Savai’i is a wonderful move and a great credit to Fr Mosese’s vision,” says Helen, as Don Bosco is still one of only a handful of TVET providers on the island, offering “a great option for those who want to improve their lives and the lives of their families”.

When Helen arrived at her new home at the Don Bosco School in 2018, she was delighted to learn that preparations for the new Certificate I Trades Foundation were already underway. By May the course was ready … and that is when the hard work began! Helen became exceptionally busy, writing resources, learning the different terminology used in Samoa and, crucially, getting to know the teachers who were to deliver, train and assess the new program. This took a great deal of time and effort and, at the start of 2020, the course was finally ready to be taught.

It was at this time that Helen’s two year-contract with Palms was due to expire, but not one to leave business unfinished, she soon realized that she had some bittersweet news to break to her dear family back in Australia. While they weren’t too happy with the decision to stay on for an extra year (it had already been two long years without her), they understood her great passion for the project.

A few months later and another accredited course, Certificate I in Hospitality (that Helen had applied for the previous year) commenced, and at the end of 2020, 31 students graduated with internationally recognised Certificates in either trades or hospitality. The hospitality course was particularly ground-breaking for the nation whose economy greatly relies on tourism; the 8 students who graduated in Hospitality were the first in the whole of Samoa to get that qualification!

Some members of the class of 2020

“I am so glad I stayed on for the third year,” recalls Helen. “It has been such a wonderful experience to see my work and Fr Mosese’s dream come to life. And despite the dramatic effects of the Measles and Covid outbreaks, Don Bosco managed to successfully deliver two accredited programs. The teachers all did such a fantastic job taking on a new style of teaching and assessing students’ skills and knowledge with limited resources and the added stress and confusion around lockdown restrictions.”

“Their trust in my design for the programs made this ‘job’ so fulfilling and rewarding. There have been many challenges over the year but the students and teachers were determined to get the job done and have graduation before the end of the year – before I left. This meant having classes after school, on weekends and over the holidays. I was not sure we were even going to be able to continue with the programs due to the loss of school time.”

A key component of Helen’s success was her ability to build close relationships with those around her. She joined in sporting contests such as staff netball teams, and was regularly invited by one of the families involved in the school to join To'onai, the traditional Sunday lunch. Indeed, so close was Helen to the family, that the parents named their youngest child after her!

Helen was even invited to the 90th birthday party of a great matriarch of the area she worked.

Once the Covid-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns sent shockwaves around the world, most people were left with little motivation or capacity for work – but not Helen! She not just doubled but tripled down on her workload, creating applications for Don Bosco to teach Certificate II Construction Trades, Certificate II Automotive Engineering and Certificate I in Sewing. While these are still at various points along the application stage and won’t be approved till later this year, they are a testament to how much potential Helen sees in the Don Bosco staff and the young people of Samoa.

“It will be another challenge for the staff at Don Bosco but I know they are ready for it and hopefully there will be no more major interruptions to the school year. There are more resources in place now and the teachers have more confidence in their abilities to deliver, train and assess accredited TVET programs. They are all legends!”

The Salesians are undertaking a variety of projects for the betterment of Samoa. Click here to read on!

This story originally appeared in the 2021 Autumn Edition of the Salesian Bulletin