DUNCAN, Okla. (AP) — Seven ladies from Stephens County who traveled to Fiji recently went there to be teachers.
Their goal was to share what they'd learned in lifetimes of sewing with women in a tiny village called Sote, to provide daughters of the village with school uniforms that otherwise would be beyond their means and, ultimately, to help create a brighter future for them.
The Lawton Constitution (http://bit.ly/1MqgRno ) reports that after their arrival back home recently, the ladies: Barbara Cox, Sandy Pogue, Carol Hall, Linda Heilman, Lois Kramer, Tonie Bess and Vicki Zimmerman, all members of the Sunshine Oklahoma Home Community Education (OHCE) group, were in agreement that they'd succeeded. Doors indeed were opened for heaven only knows how many little girls to get more complete educations. The ripple effects of their extraordinary sewing lessons, no doubt, will continue to positively influence the people of Sote well into the future.
But the teachers also were in agreement that they, too, had learned a great deal thanks to their trip, and that the positive, ripple effects may continue to be felt in their own lives for years to come.
"The trip was fantastic, above and beyond what we even dreamed," Pogue said.
It started June 11 and ended all too-soon on June 19.
Upon their arrival in the Fijian capital, Suva, the ladies got their first taste of the hospitality of the people of the nation of more than 300 islands in the South Pacific. As just one example: the niece of a former prime minister and tribal chief presented them all with colorful sulu chambas, traditional skirts and tops. The ladies said people too many to count greeted them with broad smiles and welcoming words. As they went on their way, the older white women from faraway Oklahoma created more than just a little curiosity.
"People in the market stopped us and wanted to know who we were and where we were from," Kramer said. "We created a parade everywhere we went," added Heilman.
It was when they arrived in Sote that they really began to experience the depth of the graciousness of the people of Fiji.
Sote is a village of about 200 people, including 92 children, in the interior of the island of Viti Levu. They don't have a lot by American standards. They eat what they grow cooked over open flames. Many of their homes lack electricity. They have no air conditioning, despite invariably warm and humid conditions. Children of the village wear all but threadbare, hand-me-down clothing.
"It would just go from child to child to child," Zimmerman said.
But the people of Sote seem truly happy. The children are taught to be respectful of each other and, especially, of their elders. The people care not only for their own families but for all of their neighbors. They may not have television, but they do well to entertain each other.
"I thought they were so happy with so little, such a gracious and lovely people," Kramer said. "We definitely learned a lesson that we can live with a whole lot less," added Cox.
The mothers of the village had plenty to do each day, but they all were excited to learn sewing skills shared by the Sunshine Group women. There were several good seamstresses in the village, but they had never sewn with dress patterns before or on electric sewing machines.
"We started sewing the day we got there," Hall said. "Everybody just gathered around. They were very eager to learn."
Some of the Fijian ladies waved hand-held fans to try to keep their guests cool while they sewed. They were quick to pick up skills, including how to keep their new sewing machines oiled and maintained. The first school uniform was nearly complete by the end of the first day, and the Sunshine Group ladies said they felt very comfortable leaving, knowing that they had accomplished what they'd set out to do.
"I was comfortable leaving, knowing that they knew what they were doing," Hall said.
The Oklahomans, who paid their own travel expenses, had accepted donations from supporters at home, so they were able to take with them to donate to the village three sewing machines, gift bags of sewing supplies as well as a refrigerator and freezer purchased in a nearby town. They also offered many other smaller gifts ranging from eye glasses to ink pens and delivered 15 school uniforms made in Oklahoma.
The ladies said the people of Sote were grateful, especially for the gifts that would allow their daughters to continue school (boys in the village, they noted, wear simple shirts and sarongs to school, so their attire isn't so difficult to come by).
"They were so grateful," Cox said. "It relieved a financial burden on them and eased their concerns about daughters being able to continue with school. They were so appreciative of what we did."
Hugs were in no short supply during their visit. Neither were tears when it came time for the Oklahomans to say goodbye.
"When we left they ran alongside the truck and had tears in their eyes — and we had tears in our eyes, too," Cox said.
Back home in Stephens County, the ladies agreed that they wanted to stay connected with the people of Sote, and perhaps visit again at some time in the future. They've already talked about ideas for another project.
"It was an amazing experience that I don't think any of us will ever forget," Hall said.
Information from: The Lawton Constitution, http://www.swoknews.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Lawton Constitution