Hope to make a difference

By John Lewis

Two weeks without Instagram and Netflix might be a challenge for some teenagers.

Throw in a fortnight living among people who deal with poverty and who are surrounded by the daily reminders of trauma and conflict — then most teenagers, and adults, would rather stay home.

But for a group of Shepparton teenagers heading to East Timor, the call to make a difference has become louder than the call of the couch.

Shepparton’s Notre Dame Secondary College has been running ‘‘immersion’’ trips for 14 years ever since a group of Year 10 students went to Fiji in 2006, not for a holiday, but to spend time helping locals in villages and schools.

Since then, the idea of students spending time in struggling communities has grown to include trips to the Kimberley in Western Australia as well as Fiji and East Timor.

The school’s acting deputy principal David Walker said the trips offered positive, life-changing experiences for everyone involved.

‘‘Immersions are a way of recognising the dignity of others regardless of their circumstances,’’ Mr Walker said.

He said this year, 47 students and 10 staff were involved in the immersion program.

Year 10 student April Zampaglione is among a group of nine students who will travel to Dili and Baucau in East Timor in July.

‘‘I think I will miss my family, especially my little sisters,’’ she said.

Trip co-ordinator teacher Steve Bognar took a group of students to East Timor last year and said the experience was as life-changing for him as it was for the students.

‘‘People are connected now across the world, but to travel to these places and actually see these things is important.

‘‘I have a Caritas (charity) box in my office which people drop money into, but the challenge is to make people understand what’s beyond the box,’’ he said.

The 2019 cohort of students has spent the past few months learning about East Timor, which has suffered decades of civil war, famine, invasion and brutal suppression by the Indonesian government.

Mr Bognar said during their 14 days in the country, the students would spend time with Carmelite nuns in the capital Dili before travelling to the country’s second largest city of Baucau — a 138km bus journey which takes five hours.

He said before last year’s journey the students were given sharp reminders of what to expect when a guide produced a bag of dust masks.

‘‘The buses run 24 hours a day with people charged $4 for a seat inside and $2 for sitting on the roof,’’ he said.

Mr Bognar said the first thing the group noticed last year was the amount of pollution.

‘‘There were plastic water bottles scattered everywhere. Access to fresh water is a big problem. When the Indonesians left, the infrastructure was destroyed,’’ he said.

He said the aftermath of the country’s violent past was not always so visible.

‘‘The amount of mental health trauma is huge after all the atrocities that happened,’’ he said.

Mr Bognar praised the work of the Marist Brothers who run a teachers’ college in Baucau.

‘‘They do an incredible job with education — they see that as the pathway out of poverty,’’ he said.

He said the affects of the school’s immersion program might not be felt straightaway.

‘‘You never know when a sense of social justice will kick in.

‘‘We plant the seeds and stand back, some will flourish quickly, some will take a while,’’ he said.

‘‘Hopefully our students will become more involved in an active way when they return. ‘‘Perhaps it will give them a mission and perhaps some political insight when it comes time to vote,’’ he said.

He said the history of violence that led to poverty in East Timor was in danger of being forgotten.

‘‘There needs to be a jogging of memory for those who, like myself would have been around 14 years of age when this all started. I can recall Australian troops going there on a peacekeeping mission.

‘‘But we have all since forgotten,’’ he said.

Mr Bognar finds a quote by 13th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri to remind us of his, and the school’s purpose:

‘‘Those who wait to be asked to help, are as unkind as those who refused to in the first place.’’