While some in Minnesota may have groaned about the pre- and post-Thanksgiving Day snowfalls last week, Colton Dabrowski was 7,472 miles away from home and missing the snow.
“I miss the snow!” Dabrowski wrote in an email interview. “Christmas here doesn’t really feel like Christmas when it’s 90ºF.”
Dabrowski, who grew up between Longville and Pine River, is talking about his current home on the island of Malekula, which is the second largest island in the nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific Ocean region of Melanesia. Vanuatu is made up of roughly 80 islands.
It's probably safe to say snow isn't the only thing Dabrowski misses.
“Daily life here is pretty laid back, but without running water, electricity, a stove, or other modern conveniences, day-to-day tasks take up much more time,” he said.
Inconveniences aside, Dabrowski doesn't seem to look at his situation in Vanuatu as a burden. This was, after all, one of his biggest goals before he graduated from Pine River-Backus High School in 2014.
“I decided to join Peace Corps because it has been a dream of mine ever since I learned about Peace Corps and Vanuatu in Madame (Melanie) Lindquist’s French class in high school,” Dabrowski said. “Vanuatu was randomly assigned to me for a research project about francophone countries, and I knew I wanted to go there after studying it for her class.”
During high school he worked toward that goal. His parents are Craig and Lisa Dabrowski. He is the youngest of his siblings, Casey and Corey. It's possible people from Pine River would remember him from his two years working at ALCO. After graduation he studied French and Chinese at Concordia College in Moorhead, graduating in May 2018. He planned it all so carefully with Vanuatu in mind.
“I finished my last semester of college a month early so that I could begin training in Vanuatu in April,” Dabrowski said.
He joined the Peace Corps immediately following graduation and has been volunteering at an elementary school on the island ever since. The experience has been humbling, as the islanders face challenges not familiar to Minnesota.
“Climate change has had an enormous effect on the environment here,” Dabrowski said. “Rising sea levels have disturbed coastlines and coral reefs, destroying typical fish habitats and disrupting local fishing. Most people rely on rainwater for their crops and drinking water, but increased drought has made access to safe freshwater even more difficult.”
He said the people who live on Malekula operate as a very tightly knit community. When there's a wedding, it is a total community celebration. During these events, he said he has felt like a true member of the community. Dabrowski's official duties have largely revolved around setting up the elementary school library.
“In addition to classifying, cataloging, labeling and organizing books, I’ve also been training a librarian to maintain the library and assist the other teachers,” he said.
Dabrowski, along with the teachers at the school, is working toward a project that could improve education and access to technology on the island.
“The project includes 20 new laptops that will be used primarily by teachers and students, and later by the general community,” Dabrowski said. “The second half of the project is a solar powered system to power everything. The system has 3 solar panels that charge 4 large batteries that are then connected to a few power outlets and lights inside the library. The school’s new part-time librarian will be promoted to a full-time position with expanded responsibilities as a computer teacher for the older students. We will also hold workshops for community members to learn about computers as well.”
Access to reliable electricity via solar power as well as technology will improve the ability of teachers on Malekula to create worksheets, tests and classroom activities. Ultimately, the project is meant to improve the education for 200 enrolled students.
Dabrowski's Peace Corps assignment is 27 months, ending in June 2020. He hopes friends back home can help him bring his project to fruition. The Peace Corps is hosting a crowd funding style grant to pay for the project, which people back home in Pine River can contribute to. The project is nearly $4,000 from its funding goal of $8,438.24.
More information on the project and instructions on donating can be found at https://www.peacecorps.gov/donate/projects/w-gdp-primary-school-solar-computer-lab-pp-20-461-002/.