Giving Back

There are a lot of different drivers for why we do what we do.

I do what I do because I’ve been to, lived and worked in enough developing countries and small tight-knit communities that I know what such a small amount of help can do for a group of people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to that help – the joy of seeing those faces light up and feeling that heart felt, soul deep appreciation, is unparalleled for me and is something that money, fame or fortune can simply never replace or exceed the worth of.

I grew up in a small community south of Perth, in Western Australia and if there’s one thing a country upbringing teaches you, it’s the strength that comes from giving back to and being part of an active community. I’ve worked in all corners of the globe and have seen what a relatively small amount of ‘Giving Back’ can do to a community who otherwise wouldn’t have access to any outside help, so I decided to build it into my business model.

Enter my regular commitment to Giving Back: my way of helping out at least one community every year.

The joy of seeing those faces light up and feeling that heart felt, soul deep appreciation, is unparalleled for me and is something that money, fame or fortune can simply never replace or exceed the worth of.

How do I Give Back?

Every year, I knock on the doors of schools in communities that don’t have access to governments who can provide them with excellent teacher training and professional development programs (like ours does in Australia). It’s my way of “paying it forward” – volunteering my time and skills.

These trips are self funded, and supplemented by the ‘Giving Back Journals’ project; a project I’ve been working on now for over 8 years. Below is a run down of how the project runs.

Why am I writing the Giving Back Journals?

20 years on the road as a traveller, roving English teacher and teacher trainer brings about a shed load of stories from black mail, to evacuation due to civil unrest, detention as an illegal alien, deportation and surviving multiple organ failure. 

I’ve travelled through 46 countries (to date), worked with over 90 cultures and been on 16 overseas postings before creating a second base for myself in Oslo, Norway. That’s a whole other story. My permanent base is in Perth, Western Australia.

I have lived and loved to the very fullest, taken every opportunity by the horns, slept rough, eaten with Presidents, built houses with the poorest locals on the planet, I’ve been head over heels in love and desperately heartbroken by the people who I’ve cared about the most but nothing has transformed me the way that the past 12 years have.

Part of this transformation has been about getting back to what I really love doing, and that is writing, travelling, learning more about culture, and understanding the most complex conundrum on the planet – what makes people tick.

I’ve got enough stories to keep a road trip entertained for hours so my mission is to translate the journals and the diaries, the blogs and the emails I’ve collected over the past 20 years into a series of short stories, which will eventually be turned into traditional paperbacks and audio books. Every story brings with it a healthy dose of giggle snorting and a life lesson of some description, carefully curated and written from the heart of what those experiences taught me.

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me 'so when are you writing the book?' I'd have enough to self publish this book 10 times over - so I'm finally answering that call. I'm writing the books.

What's the benefit of getting involved?

I promise a new chapter every month to all those who are contributing to the project. Not only will you read the chapters as they’re compiled, you’ll also be gifted a paperback when it’s published.

Every dollar donated, goes directly to putting on teacher training workshops. I deliver a day of training, on the house, to up-skill the local teaching staff and make learning something that every kid in that school is excited about turning up for. Your dollars go to hiring the community halls where we deliver the workshops, and the car that gets us from A to B. All other costs are self funded. 

You can join the project here – for $AUD5 a month. When you do, you’ll get ‘friends only’ links to the articles – if you’ve already got a Medium membership (also $5/month) it’s your lucky day! You can read all the articles for free so you don’t need to purchase a separate membership to the Giving Back Journals. 

Many thanks to my Auntie Pam who planted this seed a few years ago, by turning up on my doorstep with a manila envelope full of the stories I’d written over the years in emails to her from abroad, saying ‘Maria, write the book’.

Create quality learning experiences; create real change in the world. Create stories that change lives and make the world a better place to be.

Fancy being part of the journey with me? You can sign up for as little as $5/month here: 

If you’d like to see the kinds of Giving Back Projects I’ve been involved in over the years, you can check them out below. Let me introduce…..

The Paying It Forward Recipients

What happened to the trips in 2021, 2022 and 2023?

I have three words for you. 

Pandemic + knee replacement. 

Looking forward to putting on another trip this year – 2024… stay tuned!

Paying It Forward #9: 37 Primary Schools in Sumba, thanks to Project Hope, 2020

Thanks to my Patrons, close to $1600 was donated for this trip. Project Hope Sumba (Yayasan Harapan Sumba) put the call out to 50 schools this time, so the training was a little different to last time!

This time we delivered two workshops back to back, in different cities. 2 teachers from 25 schools were invited to each session, so we were expecting 100 teachers. Teachers from 37 schools turned up, and we had over 60 attendees. This is to be considered a good turn out for somewhere like Sumba, where travel can be challenging especially for the schools that are far from the workshop location.

What we found from the 2019 training, was that the money would be better spent training more teachers in how to use communicative, student centred activities (as opposed to buying a lot of resources for them), so the majority of the funds this year went to hiring large workshop spaces, getting the word out to as many schools as possible, and buying 50 sets of resources that could ultimately help all the teachers at the schools. Thanks to the turnout being a little lower than expected, we already have resources prepared for the next trip that can cover 13 schools.

Just over $1800 was spent on hall hire, Department of Education staff, light refreshments, car rental, a reusable workshop banner, printing, and all the resources given to each school. (See below). As usual, flights, freight costs, accommodation and all other expenses were absorbed by myself and Cat Wheeler, who volunteered to assist me on the trip.

Each school received a picture dictionary (a dictionary that is categorised into ‘topics’ and ‘subject areas’, with English, Bahasa, and phonetic labels), 4 pieces of flashcard card, a pencil and a pair of scissors. They also received the activity handbook that is in Bahasa Indonesia so they can go back to their schools and teach the other teachers the new activities.

During the workshop we learnt how to make and use flashcards (from everyday materials), and 9 different communicative activities that use flashcards or very little resources other than a chalkboard/whiteboard and chalk/markers.

They were super keen to go back to their schools and pass on the new ideas, and agreed that fun, communicative classrooms are way more productive than the traditional rote learning style.

The teachers were delighted – truly the energy in the rooms was amazing – they loved practicing the activities as students first, then having a go at being the ‘teacher’ in our mock classroom, with their own flashcards – the enthusiasm was contagious and the laughter, fun and learning that took place was quite unforgettable.

My cup is quite literally full for another year! Thanks again to Pak Stef from Yayasan Harapan Sumba, and Cat Wheeler who were instrumental in making the ‘on the ground’ organisation possible. The most thanks of course, must also go to my Patrons, who make all of this possible.

Paying It Forward #8: 3 Primary Schools in Sumba, thanks to Project Hope, 2019

Thanks to my Patrons, close to $700 of much needed teaching aids and learning resources were donated, and I was able to put on a workshop for 25 teachers from 3 schools in the area – completely in Indonesian, which was definitely a first for me!

Resources and teaching aids included a box for each school including 4 large wall maps, a world globe, bilingual picture dictionaries, encyclopaedias, knowledge books (intended to help teachers understand the finer points of what they’re teaching), games to enhance communication and problem solving skills, over 30 posters, spelling flashcards, reusable flashcards with whiteboard markers and teacher training handbooks of my top 10 easy to use, communicative, student centred activities, fully translated into Indonesian language.

Where and what is Project Hope Sumba?

Project Hope Sumba, is an NGO that has been set up to assist those living in Sumba. Sumba is a remote island to the east of Indonesia, that gets precious little assistance from the mainland in terms of education or training. The Head Office is in Sumba Barat Daya, near Tambolaka, and Stef from the Project Hope Office helped organise teachers from 3 nearby schools to attend the half day workshop, and be the recipients of the resources you donated.

Many of the teachers there haven’t had training so this was a first in many senses and I look forward to working with Project Hope again soon in the future; with all in agreement that the training and resources were well received, we’re already hatching plans for the next trip. Such beautiful people and such a clear thirst for learning and eagerness to embrace change away from the standard rote learning approaches – I haven’t laughed that much or been that energised by a teacher training session in a very long time – I’m looking forward to the next one already 🥰

The teachers turned up in their traditional dress (with the men even wearing their ceremonial swords!), and fully got in to learning how to use the activities in their own classrooms. The enthusiasm was palpable – and makes me really excited about delivering this sort of training again, knowing how much it’s valued and how eager the teachers are to learn.

How will it be changing for the next trip?

Well, in a few ways.

First of all, where the efforts are going to be focused. I’ve realised it’s actually a phenomenal amount of work to find and connect with a new school for every trip (needing to research what they need, and how best to help them), and that’s not the best use of my time, especially when I don’t have the time to return and find out whether the help has been useful 6-12 months down the track.

I’d really like to change that for future trips – so what I’ve decided would have the best outcomes (for us, and for the schools,) is to focus my efforts on working with Project Hope for at least the next few years. Sumba is one of the islands that receives the least help from the government, and knowing that Project Hope has a good reputation, transparent working practices and a very well established, 20 year strong track record of delivering help where it’s needed most, means that we’ll be delivering the resources and teacher training to the right places. Plans are afoot for the next trip already, doing follow up with the teachers we helped this time and working with kids in the classrooms so they can embed their learning. We’re also planning on doing more teacher training workshops for teachers who didn’t get this first round of training.

The other thing that’s changing, is how often the trips will be happening. I’ve said in the past that I’d do a trip every time we reach $500, but now that there are 15 of you on board, it means we’re getting to $500 every 6 months or so. Considering the amount of organisation and time out it takes to pull off one trip, I’d like to change the goal to once a year, so that we can pool all and any resources collected in that time, to make a bigger impact to more schools, with one set of out of pocket expenses (which I’m more than happy to do once a year!). I’d love to hear what you think about this, and also the way the finances are spent.

Where does your money go?

Quite simply, on the learning resources. I spent $700, and each school got an identical set of resources. The items are all listed above, and the images above show what they received.

What I ended up spending out of my own pocket, on top of the $700, came to about the AUD$500 mark (all figures below are approximate AUD conversions):

  • $50 / Rp 500,000: snacks for the workshop which is standard in Indonesia (teachers need to be fed if they’re attending a day of training)
  • $20 / Rp 200,000: plastic tubs to store and transport the resources (if not provided, a fair chance that rodents and/or the weather would destroy the resources within months)
  • $44 / Rp 440,000: additional baggage costs in addition to the cost of the airfares (which didn’t come with a baggage allowance)
  • $50 / Rp 500,000: car and driver to get us from the hotel, to the workshops and back to the airport in Sumba
  • $60 / Rp 600,000: usual fare for a drop off and pick up to the Denpasar airport from Ubud (this time, sponsored by the lovely Cat Wheeler)
  • $35 / Rp 350,000: accommodation for the one night we were there
  • $230 / Rp 2,300,000: airfares to and from Sumba from Bali (the other two who accompanied me also paid for their own accommodation and airfares).

There was also a significant amount of time volunteered by Valentina Makarti to create the translated versions of the teacher training manuals, and quite a few days of preparation and planning put into creating the manuals, investigating what resources would be most useful, purchasing and getting delivered the resources, then packing them and organising the freight, drivers, accommodation and schedule for the time we were there.

You can see why I think it’s a better idea to do this once a year!

Who do we have to thank?

Many thanks to Cat Wheeler for helping me make the connection with Project Hope Sumba, for being an assistant on the day, finding us a tripod and for arranging the transport to and from the airport in Bali. Many thanks also to Claire Richardson for being additional moral support and my videographer. Also many thanks to Valentina Makarti for proofing the (google translated) Indonesian in all the participant handbooks – Google is good, but it’s not perfect – thanks to Val for making all the pages intelligible! Val was also my bilingual angel at Gramedia where I bought most of the teaching resources – 1000 thanks to her for making that part of the process, including organising delivery, so much easier!

Fancy getting involved in future trips? Become a Patron here.

Paying It Forward #7: Prima Santhi School, 2018

If I asked you what you think most schools, teachers and kids would need in developing countries, what’s the first thing you’d think of? Books? Pencils? Teaching tools? Money?

The answer this school gave me for the 2018 Giving Back Project might surprise you.

When I first went out to the school to scope what they needed in terms of workshops and resources, they were quick to suggest things like whiteboards and chairs. A few days later I got an email from Putu, the owner of the school, saying:

‘Maria, I’ve had long discussions with the teachers and what they realised, is that what we actually need is bamboo curtains so the kids don’t get wet when it rains, and fans so they don’t sit in the heat. When it’s really hot or wet, the kids don’t come to school so we think it’d be better to get them curtains and fans so they actually attend more classes. If you can teach us how to have more fun in the classes, they’re even more likely to come to class.’

Well. I’ve been working in developing countries most of my career and that realisation even hit ME fair between the eyes.

It’s the little things isn’t it?

So thanks to the 11 patrons who have been donating monthly to the Giving Back Journals, we were able to purchase 4 fans and 2 classrooms worth of bamboo curtains – and the workshop I delivered was an absolute hoot – the smiles on these faces tells the story!

Paying It Forward #6: Australia, 2016

If there’s one thing I love, it’s seeing initiatives in schools that are preparing the future generations for the kind of world that awaits them – and what better than building some entrepreneurial, on the spot thinking skills, than a Shark Tank competition? The Year 6 kids at St Michael’s Primary School in Bassendean, WA, had to come up with a revolutionary idea for an app, and ‘pitch’ their idea to the sharks… one of whom was yours truly! Some great ideas, and some bright young sparks indeed!

Always very happy to donate my time to a forward thinking school that is building entrepreneurial and negotiating skills in their youths. Thanks to Lacey Filipich from Money School and Maker Kids for spearheading the initiative and Darren Lomman of GreenBatch for being the other ‘Shark’ – a really inspiring afternoon!

Paying It Forward #5: Samoa, 2016

Paying if Forward 2016 was supposed to be in April 2016, in Myanmar but due to a complete oversight and lack of planning on my part, I was deported on arrival due to having the incorrect visa. #lessonlearned

So what to do instead?

Well, Talofa (hallo) Samoa! Yes, this awesome country was again the recipient of my annual Giving Back pledge. On the back of a Conference Keynote and 3 days of workshops, I added a fourth, complimentary day of workshops for all and any teachers or principals who wanted to attend, on Demystifying English Grammar and Tenses.

I was pleasantly surprised to see 80+ teaching staff turn up, during their holidays, to nut out the complexities of the English language and walk away with over AU$200 in donated resources and prizes. The Samoan people are an absolute hoot to work with, and this day was no exception. Faafetai (thank you) Samoa, for a phenomenal week – and I hope to be working with you again in the future!

The things I love about Samoa…

  • You get lei-ed straight up (I’m talking about the flower wreath that is placed around your neck to welcome you),
  • whatever gender you identify with is the way you dress on the street, at work, wherever – no judgement,
  • the harmonised singing that starts and ends every day makes me weep happy tears (seriously, these people know how to sing),
  • the self-deprecating merry-making in any situation, especially in the middle of workshops, had me constantly doubled over in tears laughing, (what a way to spend a working day) and
  • all the women proudly wear brightly coloured flowers in their hair and men are totally comfortable wearing gorgeous chunky necklaces and long skirts.

Happy, open, fun, proud, welcoming people who make you feel at ease instantly. Samoa is awesome. There’s a sort of freedom of expression that we simply don’t see on a day to day basis in Australia, and I wish more of us experienced how freeing that can be. Leaves. From their books. Just saying?

Paying It Forward #4: Samoa, 2015

Vaiala Beach School: Vailima Village

While on a working holiday in Samoa, looking after the children of a friend I met while working in Kiribati, I had the opportunity to deliver a fun, interactive workshop at a Primary School high on a hill, near the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial. Great views, awesome teachers, we had a ball learning how to incorporate communicative, fun teaching and learning activities into everyday lessons.

We learnt by doing – so yes, they had to pretend they were the students – go Team PawPaw for taking out the winning prize! The teachers let me know they’d started implementing them the following day and were met with resounding enthusiasm from the students – I also got the full, animated story from the kids that night so overall – I think we can say that was a success!

National University of Samoa

I had exactly one hour to convince the Education, Science and IT Faculties of the National University of Samoa that there in fact WAS a way to make boring lectures interactive and engaging, and subjects like Chemistry fun, inspiring and motivating.

There were lots of laughs and in the final activity they agreed that yes, it was in fact possible and that they’d be applying some of the ideas they’d seen demonstrated in the workshop into their classes next term. Nothing like ending a workshop with laughing, joking and general merry making! Pacific islanders are a HOOT and this lively bunch were no exception!

Paying It Forward #3: Indonesia, 2014

Prima Santhi School: Ubud, Bali

Teacher training and demonstration teaching for a small home grown school started by an ex-politician whose passion to teach English drew him away from a life in politics, and into a heartfelt school which has grown from his living room, into 4 classrooms and over 400 students.

I had two sessions with the staff, where I took them through a way of looking at the tenses in English on a simple grid. Bahasa Indonesia doesn’t really have tenses, so being able to see how they all relate to one another visually helps them explain the differences to the students much easier.

We also had a session on creating activities out of thin air, with a few simple ideas that can be adapted into many different language learning opportunities. A friend of mine joined me for the 4th visit, where we got the whole school together for a spelling and vocabulary competition. We needed a long cool drink after that balmy evening!

Paying It Forward #2: Perth, 2013

Project SEED: Tanzania

One of the teachers I met along my ESL teaching journey is Vicky (Vix) Harris, in Hong Kong, around 2008. When she told me about the project she was working on in Tanzania, I couldn’t help but get involved.

Vix has quite the history with Tanzania, her parents having lived and worked there when she was a child, then travelling there to volunteer in her 30s, and now this next part of her journey which you’ll see outlined below. We decided that getting people to sponsor us to jump out of a plane would be a sensible idea (??) – and we raised over £1000 in the process for the SEED Project.

Project S.E.E.D stands for Self-sufficiency through Environmental Education and Development and is situated in the east of Tanzania in a small village called Zegero. It was founded in January 2014 and is run by James Obanda (Tanzania) and Vicky Harris (UK).

Our aim is to educate disadvantaged teenagers and young adults about agriculture and farming so that they can grow their own fruit and vegetables with a view to becoming self-sufficient. We have also set up a community drama group and would love to start our own primary school in the future. We want to bring people closer together and provide education and support for those who have been affected by malaria and HIV/AIDS.

Want to get involved? Becoming a Patron here.

Paying It Forward #1: Kiribati, 2011-2012

Kiribati School for the Disabled

It all started here, in Kiribati. In 2011 and 2012, after not having much luck finding any portable (and customs friendly) souvenirs to take home, I decided to make some with the photos that I’d taken since being on the island. The calendars were so popular (the other 400 expats were having the same problem), that I decided to mass produce them and give all proceeds to the local School for the Disabled which at the time, was not receiving funding from any government or aid organisation.

Instead of donating money, I teamed up with Tuli Stacey and Ann Clark, who at the time were the Australia volunteer teachers assigned to the school to help train the teachers of the deaf and blind students.

With their help, we choose a range of graded readers, audio discs and teachers books for the school, so that the teachers could learn how to use resources suitable for multi level classrooms. Ann created Braille versions of the books for the blind students, and Tuli helped the students create acted out ‘sign’ versions of the books for those who had hearing impairments.

The project was so successful we raised over $8000 over two years, and along with it, a very happy tribe of teachers, support staff and students who had a new library of resources that suited many different needs 🙂