Three Australian volunteers from Rotary Taree in northern New South Wales started a renovation programme at the Kokoda Memorial Hospital last December.
Husband and wife team, Robert and Alison Keene, and university student Shaun Gessler, have been working with local carpenters and college students, painting, replacing flooring and installing new patient seating to transform the paediatrics ward and maternal child health area.
Kokoda District Health Centre acting officer in charge, Leon Sime, said the improvements to the maternal health area such as the antenatal and family planning room have been essential.
“More recently, village health workers have been encouraging and referring mothers to the clinic. With the influx of mothers we need better facilities,” said Mr Sime.
Mr Sime has assisted Rotary in coordinating construction and community participation from the beginning.
“There is good community support and big respect for the ongoing Rotary commitment to Kokoda,” he said.
Since its establishment in 1995 the Kokoda Memorial Hospital has welcomed the helping hands of over 300 Rotarians and local volunteers.
Current volunteer Mr Gessler is the grandson of legendary Rotarian Bob Young. Mr Young has coordinated construction programs for the hospital since its establishment, having visited more than 20 times.
Shaun remembers Rotarians staying at the family home before and after projects.
“They came back with great stories, which really sparked my interest,” he said.
Mr Gessler, who is studying anthropology and psychology, visited Kokoda four years ago and was looking forward to reuniting with old friends.
“We formed really strong bonds. The college students I met the last time are qualified tradesmen now.”
Seventy-three-year-old Mr Keene remembers when Mr Young first introduced him to Kokoda.
“In the early nineties I was involved with a Rotary project in the Solomon Island’s and then Bob told me about the job up here.
“It’s been a bit of a ride since then. I have made a lot of good friends,” Mr Keene said.
A builder for over 30 years, Robert has been to Kokoda many times and was eager to get wife involved as building supervisor on this occasion.
“I always thought it was his project, then I suddenly realised he really wanted me to come,” Mrs Keene said.
The renovation project is helping build community ownership through the employment of local tradesmen as well as students from the local technical college.
“The vocational kids do most of the work, we just help educate and get people involved,” Mr Keene said.
“The role is not so much about building, but to inspire the kids.”
Construction efforts exceeded the expectations of both the community and Rotary volunteers, although many challenges were experienced.
“We had limited tools and resources,” Mrs Keene said.
“We would have liked to have chosen the quality of wood and colour of paint but we had to use what was there.”
“There was also a bit of a communication barrier, especially explaining technical information to the students who didn’t have prior experience,” Mr Gessler said.
“It was an incredibly rewarding experience, working with the local students and learning about their culture and family life.”
Mrs Keene said, “It brings a bit of a tear to your eye to say goodbye.”
A second Rotary team will continue renovations at the Hospital in February 2010.
Building materials and supplies have been financed by the Australian Government through the Kokoda Development Program, with staff and support provided by the Papua New Guinea Government.
Rotary Taree will also raise money to build staff housing for the Hospital.