Supporting athletes of all abilities in Vanuatu

How an Australian volunteer helped para-athletes achieve international success, and turned friends into lifelong family.

Jessica Richardson twice volunteered with the Vanuatu Association of Sport and National Olympic Committee (VASANOC) - the umbrella body for sports in Vanuatu, and the lead organisation for Team Vanuatu at the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and Pacific Games. Having returned to Australia because of COVID-19, Jessica shares her own sporting highlights package: the highs, lows, and her hopes for the future.

It’s exciting working in sport for development in a sport-loving Pacific island nation.

My first assignment with VASANOC was focused on increasing the inclusion of people with disabilities in sport in Vanuatu in the lead up to the Pacific Mini Games, in which para sports (sports played by people with a disability) were included for the first time. My second assignment expanded on these goals to increase the participation of people with disabilities, and women, in sport in Vanuatu.

Throughout this time I worked closely with the Vanuatu Paralympic Committee, was elected secretary of the Vanuatu Women in Sport Commission and volunteered as Director of Rowing at the Vanuatu Rowing Association.

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Jessica Richardson walks out with Team Vanuatu at the Opening Ceremony of the Samoa 2019 Pacific Games. The para-athletes led out Team Vanuatu, with Ken Kahu as Flag Bearer – the first para-athlete to be a Flag Bearer in the Pacific at the Games. Photo: Jessica Richardson
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VASANOC Rowing Development Coach Elaine Moli alongside Australian volunteer Jessica Richardson. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

There were a lot of highlights, and a lot of firsts for para-athletes.

We took a team of three para-athletes to the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, where Friana Kwevira took home the bronze medal in the Women’s F46 Javelin – the first Commonwealth Games medal ever won by an athlete from Vanuatu. At the Samoa 2019 Pacific Games we made more history, when one of our para-athletes was the flag bearer for team Vanuatu – a first in the Pacific.

We also had Vanuatu’s first para athlete qualify on merit for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, which have since been postponed.

From all this there has been a significant increase in participation by people with disabilities in para sports in Vanuatu, and  broader community support for people with disabilities

Personally I found it challenging seeing and working through the discrimination that women and people with disabilities face in different aspects of life in Vanuatu. However it has been rewarding seeing community acceptance of people with disabilities increase, following the international success of our para-athletes.

Coming home was the most challenging part of my assignment, and it’s hard to talk about without tearing up.

I came back to Australia on holiday in mid-March as my partner Matthew had just finished his volunteer assignment with the Vanuatu Society for People with Disability, and was about to fly to the US  to walk the Pacific Crest Trail to raise funds for the organisation

Within a week of returning home, international borders closed and COVID-19 was announced as a global pandemic. My friends in Vanuatu packed up my house for me and stored my belongings.

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Australian volunteer Jessica Richardson with athlete Friana Kwevira. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
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Jessica Richardson and Friana Kwevira at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. Friana won Vanuatu's first Commonwealth Games medal in the Women’s F46 Javelin (para-athletics). Photo: Jessica Richardson

I’m gutted and devastated, but also grateful for the experience I had, and the support I continue to receive from the Australian Volunteers Program, my family and friends.

Everything was put into perspective over Easter when Cyclone Harold hit the northern provinces of Vanuatu while I was safe in Australia. The friend I left my belongings with – her family’s homes were completely destroyed and we weren’t able to contact them for days after the cyclone. The pictures and stories of the devastation were harrowing, however I was grateful my friend’s  family was safe.

I’m currently supporting the Vanuatu Paralympic Committee, the Women in Sport Commission and the Vanuatu Rowing Association remotely from Australia. The Vanuatu Paralympic Committee recently secured funds to employ a local staff member who I was planning to work directly alongside. I’m now hoping to mentor and support them remotely.

I’m also helping the above organisations with their social media and websites, and I’m upskilling myself by doing online short courses in social media.

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Participants of the first female-only Learn to Row ‘Row Like A Girl’ Week at the Port Vila Rowing Club. Australian volunteer Jessica Richardson facilitated the program to engage more woman in rowing in Vanuatu. Photo: Jessica Richardson
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Staff and volunteers from VASANOC on a team building day out to Pele Island, Vanuatu. Photo: Jessica Richardson

It’s difficult to put life in Vanuatu into words.

There’s the pure bliss of living in an island paradise. I stood on the top of a volcano, swam with turtles, dove through a shipwreck, kastom danced with locals, camped on empty beaches and drank and ate an endless amount of coconuts. I’ll miss traveling to remote areas to introduce sport to people with disabilities who never had the opportunity to play before.

What comes next is unknown, but I would like to find work in Australia within sport for development - building on my experience in Vanuatu. I’m passionate about using sport to bring about social change and development.

My favourite part of living in Vanuatu was the people, with their brilliant smiles and welcoming attitude; the friends that have become family. I will be forever grateful for my experience, and know I will remain in touch with my Vanu family.