Farewelling friends, community, a way of life

Tim and Zoe made lifelong friends in Tonga, making leaving all the more difficult when COVID19 happened.

Tim Cleasby and his wife Zoe Hillig volunteered in Tonga for 10 months before being repatriated to Australia because of COVID-19. There they developed solid friendships and an appreciation for a slower pace of life. In his words, Tim explains how he supported his colleagues to help rehabilitate stroke victims, and the lasting impact of his and Zoe’s time in Tonga.

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Returned Australian volunteers Tim Cleasby (left) and Zoe Hillig at the Mapu a Vaea or ‘Whistle of the Noble’ - natural blowholes on the island of Tongatapu in the village of Houma in Tonga. Photo: Darren James
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Returned Australian volunteer physiotherapist trainer Tim Cleasby (right), with his colleague Sitani Folau at the Ministry of Health Physiotherapy Department. Photo: Darren James

As a volunteer physiotherapist trainer, I assisted in managing the workload at the Tongan Ministry of Health Physiotherapy Department, as there was just one other physio in the country.

My role was to assist Motivation Australia (my Australian partner organisation) and the local staff in the planning and daily running of the new facility. The second half of my assignment turned into more of a training and leadership role.

My proudest moment as a volunteer came in the last few weeks of my time in Tonga. During my assignment, a new Australian-funded physiotherapy facility opened and recently trained Tongan physios started working there. We decided to run a class there for clients who had recently suffered a stroke, with the goal of creating a supportive environment for them to share their journey and exercise together. 

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Tim and Zoe at the natural blowholes on the island of Tongatapu in the village of Houma in Tonga. Photo: Darren James
Tim (middle) with physiotherapist Isilelei Kakala (left) and training physiotherapist Solo Pau'uvale, sharing therapeutic techniques at the Physiotherapy Department. Photo: Darren James
Tim (middle) with physiotherapist Isilelei Kakala (left) and training physiotherapist Solo Pau'uvale, sharing therapeutic techniques at the Physiotherapy Department. Photo: Darren James

Initially this took a lot of my time and I was often the only physio who attended the class. But in the weeks before I left, I was so encouraged to see the local physiotherapy staff running the class with fantastic outcomes, and being really excited for the ways they were noticing improvements in the clients.

In my final week I witnessed one lady stand and take multiple steps with slight assistance, where only months before she required two people to help her stand!

— Tim Cleasby

The most challenging part of volunteering ended up becoming one of the most refreshing parts of my role: in Tonga, family and church come before work, and everything can wait until tomorrow.

Initially this was frustrating as I felt I was there to work – and it made things feel slow. However, I grew to love the idea of valuing life outside of work more than anything else. And this approach to life makes living on a small island much more enjoyable.

We were really sad to have to leave Tonga sooner than expected because of COVID-19. We really miss all our friends we made, and we struggled to quickly pack our life and house up in such a short time.

As I walked on the runway to board the plane home, a client from the stroke class walked over to thank me for all the things the class and service had done for him, including allowing him to return to his job at the airport.

— Tim Cleasby

The beauty of the internet is that we are still in touch with lots of our friends in Tonga and can’t wait to see them again. However, we are thankful for our last weekend in Tonga which involved back-to-back farewell parties all over the island to say goodbye!

And we are thankful for the Australian Government and the way they did what they could to look after us and keep us safe in this uncertain time.

My wife and I are both still in touch with our partner organisations, while being back in Australia, and assisting where we can.

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Zoe and Tim outside the hospital where Tim volunteered in Tonga. Supplied: Zoe Hillig and Tim Cleasby
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Tim at the Hospital Physiotherapy Department with a patient. Supplied: Tim Cleasby

I have been answering clinical questions and finishing off training modules while my wife is helping with grant applications and ongoing monitoring and evaluation support for her partner organisation – the Tonga Health Promotion Foundation.

We have made lifelong friends and I am sure we will continue to be in touch with them formally, and informally for many, many years.