Melissa Bencik turns to unconventional approaches to inspire young Solomon Islanders to become blood donors.
Melissa Bencik (second from right) with staff of the Solomon Islands Blood Bank.
Some days I do my job in a thatched hut. Other days, it's a packed classroom or outside on the grass or - on the rarest of occasions - in an auditorium.
Today I'll be working under a tree. The students are gathered in the shade, waiting.
Two months into my assignment with Solomon Islands Red Cross, the style of my life and work have changed markedly. My role is to increase the number of young people in Honiara who donate blood and to turn occasional donors into lifetime donors.
There is a critical need for blood donors in Solomon Islands, just as there is in Australia. Only one-fifth of the blood required for urgent medical treatment is collected through donations, and any blood donated is usually used within 24 hours.
My colleagues, Deann from Red Cross and Donald from the Ministry of Health, work with a small team of committed volunteers to organise blood drives, maintain donor records and hold awareness talks at workplaces and schools.
Approaches I would have used to engage young people in Australia - like social media or DVDs - just aren't possible in schools that may not even have running water, let alone a DVD player or internet connection. So I'm observing how things work here and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise.
The students enjoy drama and acting, so we've introduced short skits into our awareness talks. The skits allow us to explore reasons why people might be reluctant to give blood: fears that it will hurt, that it may reveal they are sick, they might make someone else sick, or they may lose too much blood. We can discuss these fears and dispel myths in a non-confrontational way.
After the talk and the skits, students line up to donate blood. They're excited to become blood donors and inspired by the concept of being able to save a life. The nervous ones bring their friends along for support, thereby turning one blood donor into three or four. I make a mental note to trial a 'Bring a Friend Day' the next time we visit this school.
We're also using peer education strategies - identifying student leaders and giving them training, facts and resources to encourage their peers to become donors.
Volunteering overseas makes you quickly discard any pre-conceived notions of what has to be done and what has to change. You need to take time to find out what's already working well, and what could be done better. Because my work needs to continue after I've gone, my plans have to be realistic as well as sustainable.
I'm going to embrace this opportunity with open arms over the coming year.
Melissa Bencik is working in Solomon Islands through the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, supported by Australian Red Cross.
Photo courtesy Melissa Bencik.