Photo: Robyn Santa Maria
Robyn Santa Maria shares how her experience walking the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea inspired her to become an online volunteer, using her expertise in communications to assist Papua New Guinean NGO Seeds Theatre Group.

Walking the infamous Kokoda Track is a pilgrimage for many Australians. For me, it was even more personal. My grandfather was on active duty in PNG in 1942 and, after having read the letters he wrote home to my grandmother during that time, I had always wanted to understand more about what it must have been like for him.  While he didn’t fight on the Track itself, he was stationed in Buna and Lae as part of Australia’s Search Light Battalion. His efforts and those of his fellow soldiers were part of the same campaign, so it made sense to me to walk the Track as a way to better comprehend what had unfolded during World War Two.

Walking the Kokoda was my own pilgrimage, to better understand my grandfather’s wartime experience and to take with me the same small wooden boomerang that had accompanied him when he went to war in 1942. I have never been able to find out the name of the Aboriginal Elder who carved the boomerang for my grandfather, but what I do know is that it was carved out of great respect and carried positive spirits to “keep him safe and ensure his return home”. The boomerang is a family guardian of sorts and accompanies me or my family members whenever we leave Australia.

I shared this story with my group porters during the Kokoda trek, many of whom were fascinated by it. Chatting with the porters, who had guided us safely across the rugged Owen Stanley Ranges, made me realize how much they appreciate what men like my grandfather had done for PNG. Likewise, meeting an original ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel’ and hearing his personal account of what happened during World War Two, made me think a lot about connections, supporting people and whether there was a way I could help people in PNG upon my return to Australia.

Robyn with Farley, one of the original ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ (photo supplied: Robyn Santa Maria).

After some time searching for an opportunity I could take up virtually, and one that aligned with my professional skills in communication and writing, I came across a volunteer position as grant writer for PNG-based nonprofit Seeds Theatre Group.  So, in January 2014, thanks to UN Online Volunteering, I started writing grant applications and searching for funding opportunities for Seeds.

Seeds is a small yet effective group that uses the performing arts as a powerful communication tool to raise awareness of health and social issues, in particular gender based violence. The group consists primarily of young unemployed people in Morobe Province who are trained and mentored by Project Director Willie Doaemo and his colleagues. Collectively, the Group’s passionate and committed staff members have more than 10 years’ experience in delivering performances to raise awareness of health, environmental and human rights issues.

Being a small nonprofit that relies solely on volunteers and external funding to carry out their work, it is often difficult for Seeds to have their voice heard. And – sadly – many people do not even know where PNG is, which is a challenge the group faces when seeking funding and donations from governments, corporations and private individuals around the world.

I believe there is a perception that, because the group is small and in a remote part of the world, its efforts might not be as ‘professional’ as the efforts of much larger and well-recognised nonprofits. However, there is evidence that their work does have a positive impact on the lives of people in PNG when, in 2014, a woman accused of sorcery was rescued by a team trained as part of Seeds’ Women Not Witches campaign. The campaign has so far been funded by the Canadian Embassy in Canberra and has in-principle support from Oxfam PNG to extend the campaign to other areas in the country for which funding will be raised via crowdfunding.

Seeds does not have a full-time team working on communications and fundraising so I volunteer as part of a growing network of international volunteers who can help promote the group’s cause. We are online volunteers residing all over the world including France (where I now live), Canada, Ireland, Nepal, the UK, USA and Australia, who devote time to promoting Seeds’ campaigns and projects via social media and organizations like the Australia–Papua New Guinea Network. It may only be a small role that I play, but I hope that it’s helping the group to overcome its communications challenge of being ‘seen and heard’ for their much-needed work.

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Robyn Santa Maria -  - Lowy Institute

Robyn Santa Maria

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Having always worked with words since graduating from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Robyn enjoys many things communications-related: writing, proofreading, editing and thinking ‘big-picture’ about what the world would be like if everyone communicated just a little bit clearer and with a lot more empathy. Robyn is employed in the private sector in the south of France and volunteers as a grant writer/communications consultant to a small community-based organization in Papua New Guinea. Outside of work and volunteer life, Robyn is an amateur alpinist and is learning French. Robyn has lived and worked in London, Japan, New Zealand and now France and is always wondering where life will lead her next and what stories will unfold along the way.