This Side of the Reef (Part Two)

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Author’s Note: As a YMCA volunteer in Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) from 1983-1986, I experienced some of the highest, lowest, most frustrating and thoroughly exhilarating moments of my life. I was in love with the people, the place, and captured by the many challenges and rewards of this work. 

YMCA National Headquarters, Apia

My experience in Samoa was a fascinating introduction to a totally different kind of YMCA work than I had ever seen before. The traditional YMCA programs of physical education, youth clubs and camping were almost non-existent. Instead, the Samoan YMCA programs responded to locally defined social and economic development needs and priorities as perceived by the people themselves, and where possible, collaborated with other local organizations, government, and international agencies to meet those needs.


Founded in 1978 with the assistance of the New Zealand YMCAs, the National Headquarters of the YMCA of Western Samoa was located in the capital and only city of Apia. The local Rotary Club raised $10,000 for the construction of the YMCA headquarters facility, consisting of a large open meeting room with attached office, classroom and kitchen. The main fale (Polynesian house) was built in the traditional manner entirely without the use of nails. Instead, twine woven from coconut husk was used to bind the beams together.

An evening training seminar in a YMCA village club

YMCA programs focused mainly on rural development, vocational training and youth development in Apia, and in 40 village YMCA branches or ‘clubs’ throughout the country. Leadership Training seminars and field practicums covered topics such as farm management, small business management, marketing and credit unions. The YMCA Sales and Marketing Program helped local communities find overseas markets for their produce, and organized competitions to encourage increased crop production. Cash crops included taro, the starchy root staple consumed locally and exported to Samoans in Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, and kava, a mildly sedating and culturally important beverage consumed widely throughout the Pacific.

Carpentry and building construction classes

Trades training programs in carpentry, construction, furniture sales, and motor mechanics prepared young people for jobs in town, while vocational skills development for self-employment were promoted in the rural areas. Weight training and aerobics classes were offered along with a popular Social Survival Skills course to help prepare Samoans who were planning to move and settle permanently in New Zealand for school or for work.

As the YMCA Public Relations Officer, my first assignment was to produce a newsletter by April which was four months away (high stress!) and I quickly realized the need to slow down and put any overly ambitious hopes for swift and immediate progress aside. Most importantly, I worked closely with my local counterpart at the YMCA, who would assume my responsibilities when I finished my assignment in Samoa.

Village tollgate and a determined toll collector

Traveling to villages around the country on my Honda trail bike, I gathered stories and photos for the YMCA newsletter, ran youth programs, and enjoyed long, lazy lunch hours free-diving at Palolo Deep Marine Reserve on the outskirts of Apia, with fresh fish and chips, bananas, papayas, taro and palusami (baked taro leaves filled with coconut cream) washed down with a couple of young coconuts. It was my favorite refuge from the ‘fishbowl’ intensity that small places like Samoa can sometimes feel like to a foreigner.

My job at the YMCA was really fantastic. But I needed to work at relaxing more, and learn how to roll with the various challenges, including the slower pace of life in general. So, whenever I was exhausted or just frustrated from taking my work too seriously, it helped simply to stand out on the far reef and shout into the wind – unleashing my pent up fury at the top of my lungs – as my anguish merged into the thundering roar of the pounding surf.

YMCA Youth Group

Samoa is a small place, and I was able to involve the YMCA in various collaborative efforts with other organizations. Together with the Ministry of Health and other community organizations and businesses, the YMCA helped establish the first National Health Fair, which is celebrated each year on World Health Day. The event kicks off with a ‘fun walk’ and includes free medical and dental check-ups, general health education on topics such as nutrition, sanitation and first aid, and a poster-making contest for the kids.

With the Samoa Red Cross Society and the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture, the YMCA helped establish the first National Red Cross Water Safety Program in Samoa, and assisted an International Youth Leadership Camp involving young people from 14 Pacific Island nations. The YMCA also helped organize the annual Special Olympics and Games for the Disabled, and took the lead in establishing a National Suicide Awareness Campaign to address the epidemic of youth suicide that was spreading across the Pacific at the time.

Stay tuned for Part Three, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.




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