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January 9, 2003

Couple teaches deaf students on Fiji

From: Narragansett Times, RI - 09 Jan 2003


SOUTH KINGSTOWN - Jim and Marilyn Cooney have no need for an alarm clock in their basement apartment on the island of Viti Lavu in Fiji. Instead, the couple is awakened by the singing voices of hundreds of students attending a school nearby.
With the harbor just minutes from their home and mild temperatures averaging 80 degrees, the Cooneys seem to be living in tropical paradise, but they are not on vacation. The couple, who are residents of West Kingston, have spent the past year living in the city of Savu to establish a standard protocol for teaching and mentoring future teachers who work at a four-year-old school for deaf students.
"They've taught us more than we've taught them," said a humble Jim. And Marilyn agreed wholeheartedly, noting how gracious their hosts have been throughout their stay as volunteers.
The Cooneys are both trained educators in sign language and deaf culture, and they are former employees of the Rhode Island School for the Deaf in Providence. In his 35-year tenure there, Jim served as head of the junior and senior school for 25 years, retiring in 1997, but continued to serve as a consultant. He was then hired as the human resources director for Arnold Lumber in West Kingston. Marilyn, a teacher, is currently on a leave of absence from the Providence school system.
Fiji's Gospel School for the Deaf was founded by Vivienne Harland, an English missionary. Via e-mail, Harland recruited and inspired the Cooneys to make the commitment and the couple jumped at the chance to travel to a country they had never visited before.
With an excess of books and teaching materials, the Cooneys packed their bags and tackled their new roles in a foreign culture. Jim was appointed as director of the deaf ministry, which includes the 22-student, 8-teacher school and an adult program, while Marilyn was given a hands-on role as curriculum supervisor.
"I taught the first term to show the other teachers the curriculum," Marilyn said, explaining that she recycled some of her lessons from the school for the deaf in Providence.
The deaf school is located on the campus of a 1,000-student high school and 700-student primary school. Nonetheless, Marilyn said, the main problem is a lack of materials.
"There are no books and no good libraries nearby," she explained.
To teach reading, which is the main academic diffiiculty for deaf students, teachers utilize pictures and objects for physical demonstrations. Often, the pictures are accompanied by words or sentences which students learn to sign and read.
"We decided to teach a unit on the Arctic since the kids have never seen snow before," Marilyn said.
Classroom demonstrations and classroom activities, where students built igloos and penguins out of paper, culminated in a field trip to a small icehouse, where students had the opportunity to touch and play with crushed ice. They walked barefoot and threw snowballs at one another.
"Just reading a textbook and sitting at a desk is very boring and way too difficult," Marilyn said. "There are a lot of kids who don't learn that way."
This type of hands-on learning is not only effective, according to Marilyn, it is also fun for the students, who range in age from three to 20 years old, and are always eager to learn.
"They're a pleasure to teach," she said.
While attending the Gospel school, students do not live with their families, but reside in a hostel under the care of Harland. A handful of others live in the school building. Each student is assigned a specific chore, whether it is to wash laundry or prepare a meal for the group.
"The older kids really embrace the younger ones and take them under their wing," Jim said, noting that the interaction within the hostel helps foster their acquisition of sign language.
Of Fiji's 300 islands, only 100 are inhabited. The Gospel school and the Cooneys' apartment is located on the largest of these islands in the city of Suva. Melanesians (the indigenous people), Fiji-Indians, who were brought over from India years ago to help with the sugar plantations, and a multitude of Chinese, Korean and other cultures make up the country's population.
While the Cooneys are living in a city, there are few forms of entertainment outside of school. Jim occasionally plays golf at a local club and Marilyn has joined a pony club where she rides horses, sometimes taking students along with her. Once in a while the Cooneys will eat at McDonald's to escape the monotony of Fijian cuisine - mainly rice - but mostly the Cooneys stroll along the harbor in the evening, enjoying the view.
The student population is diverse at the Gospel school, with many of the students hailing from small islands. These villages are typically poor with little or no running water or electricity.
In some parts of Fiji, Jim explained, deafness is considered a curse.
"The goal of the culture is to fit in in the community," Marilyn said. "If you're different in any way you're looked down upon."
But the perception is changing and parents are willingly sending their children to the school. One mother of a deaf child was given a job at the hostel where she could simultaneously learn sign language to communicate better with her son.
The Cooneys often travel to other islands or villages on behalf of the Gospel school. As guests of a village on an island called Rabi (pronounced Ram-bee) three months ago, they were treated kindly, with locals giving up beds for them to sleep in and feeding them first at meal times.
"They were very kind in every village we visited," Marilyn said.
Through word of mouth, the couple heard that a deaf, six-year-old boy named Taitusi was living there. Excited by the idea of attending the Gospel school, Taitusi eagerly agreed to go back to Savu with the Cooneys.
"The whole village came out to see him off," Jim said. Marilyn added that while many of the women were in tears, Taitusi was smiling, enthusiastic about riding in a van for the first time.
The nonprofit school faces several challenges during the next several years. The school has received major support through fundraisers and significant donations from several governments, including Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
"They've been very supportive," Jim said.
With a growing fund base, the school will continue building the two-story school and erecting a new hostel to accommodate more students. The biggest need, however, is to train teachers, many of whom have only a high school education.
"The future leaders are in the school, but it will be ten years before they take over themselves," Jim said.
Although they had only agreed to a one-year commitment at the Gospel school, it wasn't difficult for the Cooneys to decide to return for a second year. The desire for continuing what they helped establish propelled their decision. On January 18, with suitcases bursting with books and learning materials, the Cooneys will fly back to Fiji after spending the holidays in Rhode Island and visiting their three children. They will spend four months in Fiji, return here for four months, then go back to Fiji for another four.
"We'll take it a year at a time," Jim said.
Anyone wishing to support The Gospel School for the Deaf, is invited to write a check payable to Christ Church - Fiji and can be sent to Christ Church - Fiji, 1025 Main St., East Greenwich, RI 02818.

©The Narragansett Times 2003