Fiona Luth was gazing across a typically beautiful, tropical scene of palm trees, blue skies, sandy beaches and turquoise sea.
The former Independent school English teacher had gone to Fiji for a break, a chance to regroup after the loss of a parent. In the back of her mind was the School of St Jude in Tanzania, established by Australian Gemma Sisia, which she’d seen featured on Australian Story.
‘I had this moment where I thought I want to do something really positive for other people,’ Fiona Luth recalls.
The fleeting thought developed further when she went to the home of a Fijian woman, who worked where Ms Luth was staying on Kadavu, Fiji’s fourth biggest island.
There were no books in the house. Their youngest daughter wasn’t able to bring books home from the school where she boarded, and there were no public libraries.
‘That’s a ridiculous problem,’ Fiona Luth thought, ‘and I’m going to do something about it.’
That something turned into the Fiji Book Drive, a one-person crusade – with the help of family and friends – that has provided 15 Fijian schools and seven kindergartens on Kadavu with repurposed books, computers and educational resources over the past five years.
Ms Luth, pictured above, travelled to primary schools across Melbourne, speaking to children and school librarians, then testing out the suspension on her car as she carted books back. Public libraries and bookshops have also helped.
The issue of how to get the books and equipment to Fiji was solved in a chance conversation with a friend at their children’s swimming lessons. ‘I want to do a book drive,’ Ms Luth told her friend. ‘Fee, don’t you know we’re freighters? We’ll freight for you,’ the friend offered. WCBM World Freight stepped in and has provided freighting services for free.
She was supported by Peter and Margaret Long, former teachers who run a charity called Children of Fiji, who helped her connect with her first school. ‘And it worked,’ says Ms Luth. ‘I was euphoric.”
In 2015, the Fiji Book Drive packed and sent more than 11,500 books to Fiji. Each year, at her own expense, Ms Luth travels to Fiji and visits the schools and kindergartens, lately with a new addition to the family, two-year-old Clementine, in tow.
The visits invariably provide deeply moving experiences. ‘It’s so rewarding, it’s why I work for free,’ says Ms Luth. ‘When a head teacher is crying because they are so moved by what you’ve done…’
Ms Luth has high standards for the books and equipment she accepts. Not long ago, a kindergarten connected to Monash University closed, and she was able to go through cupboard after cupboard of beautiful puzzles and equipment.
Recently, the project had a breakthrough, with a warehouse secured (first in Cheltenham, now in Keilor), where books and equipment can be delivered, stored and packed.
Ms Luth is looking at streamlining the operations – less travelling to schools, often with Clementine, to collect books herself.
Ideally, she would like books and equipment dropped off at the warehouse during certain hours. And she is hoping Independent schools – and their libraries when they are ‘weeding out’ books – can assist in reaching her 2016 target of 20,000 books. Ideally, she would like to get the books by early May.
‘A book can open up the world to a child,’ Ms Luth says. ‘My aim is to get as many books to as many students as possible and hopefully increase their opportunities in life.’
If you can assist the Fiji Book Drive, you can contact Fiona at firstname.lastname@example.org