Backpacks for Fiji will fulfill a need for students at the Nagigi Primary School |

Backpacks for Fiji will fulfill a need for students at the Nagigi Primary School

Scott Iwasaki

Students in Fiji need backpacks.

That’s why Park City residents Mike Henderson and his wife Rena Jordan have started the Backpacks for Fiji project.

They are asking the community to drop off used or new backpacks at the Basin Recreation Fieldhouse, 1388 Center Dr. at Kimball Junction, starting on Sunday, Nov. 1.

The backpacks will be shipped to the Nagigi Primary School in a little town called Savusavu on Vanua Levu, the second-largest island in Fiji.

The couple discovered the school while on vacation last August.

"We stayed at the Koro Sun Resort, a beautiful place that employed the most amazing people we’ve ever met," Henderson said during an interview with The Park Record. "The resort offered activities so you could go to a waterfall or to the fishing village."

One of the activities was a visit to the Nagigi Primary School, which was a 30-minute drive from the resort.

"The island wants tourists to meet their kids and see how they are educated and learn about their culture," Henderson said. "It’s also a way for the school to show tourists some of the struggles the students go through and to drum up donations by buying school supplies."

The couple originally missed the outing, but the resort set up a private visit.

"We went in a group with a couple of friends from Australia and two other school teachers from the United States," Henderson said.

The Nagigi Primary School was located in a simple building built by members of the local community.

"It serves 150 students of all ages and we visited every classroom and were blown away by these kids, especially the younger ones," Henderson said. "They were so enamored by people from other countries and thought my Scottish accent was hilarious."

During the visit, Henderson and Jordan noticed the students had limited access to paper and pens.

"So we bought them a whole bunch of supplies, which cost us no more than $60," Henderson said. "For them, it was as if we had robbed the store, they were so grateful."

Henderson talked with the school’s headmaster J.D. Sharma to see what else the students needed, apart from money.

"He said, "Funny enough, it’s backpacks and shoes, things that would make their lives a little easier,’" Henderson said. "I looked around and, sure enough, many didn’t have shoes. Some had flip-flops, but that was about it."

The reason is simple, according to Henderson.

"The headmaster filled me in on some information about the school and the students, and we learned some interesting things," Henderson said.

While most of these kids’ parents are farmers or employed as government workers, they earn less than $2,000 per year, which is well below the poverty line.

Busses to school cost each child about $10 a week, and those living closer still pay $7 a week. So, families with multiple children must pay more.

Families are also only able to afford one school uniform per child, with no money left for shoes.

During rainy weather school attendence drops due to the lack of raincoats and school bags.

Although the government pays the tuition, there are still students who miss school because they can’t afford lunch.

"After learning these things, Rena and I knew we wanted to do something," Henderson said.

After brainstorming, Henderson remembered a jacket drive organized when he was the World Cup director at the United States Ski and Snowboard Association.

"I had cleaned out my closet and found some old uniform jackets and went to Tom Kelly [vice president of communications] and told him if I could give two jackets away to Christian Aid [Ministries], imagine what we can collect as an organization," Henderson said. "So, I pioneered a jacket drive and we got the resorts on board and lo and behold, we had more than 200 USSA jackets that we presented to Christian Aid. They, then, gave them to the homeless in Salt Lake City.

"It was hugely successful and that was with jackets," he said. "So, I thought we could do the same thing with backpacks. I’m sure people have multiple backpacks collecting dust in closets and garages."

Henderson, alone, found four backpacks that he didn’t know he had.

"I’m just one person, so, think of just at the USSA what the coaches, athletes and staffers can come up with," he said. "I thought this could be a hugely successful project. So, I decided to do a backpack drive."

Henderson contacted USSA, Deer Valley Resort and Vail Resorts and pitched the idea.

"They are on board to support this project," he said. "And Rena, who is the director of Basin Recreation, has figured out how we can use the Fieldhouse as a drop-off location.

"There will be a bin that will have a Backpacks for Fiji flyer attached to it," Henderson said. "If people can’t see it, they can ask the front desk where to take the backpacks."

Henderson’s dream is to give backpacks to every student in Fiji.

"I’m starting with the school and then work on the next school and then work on the next island," he said. "I’m hoping some of our local schools will get on board with the project to help us out. And I would love to get a photograph in six months or so of the kids in Fiji holding backpacks from Park City."

The current dilemma is finding a way to get the backpacks to Fiji.

"This is proving to be the most difficult part of the project," Henderson said. "I’ve been knocked back by some of the larger companies such as FedEx and UPS, who are selective with their philanthropic activities. I’m hoping to find a shipping company who would be interested in sponsoring the project."

Backpacks aren’t the only things Henderson wants to ship to Fiji.

"I’m going to do to a shoe drive later, but want to focus on the backpacks now," he said.

Basin Recreation Fieldhouse, 1388 Center Dr. at Kimball Junction, will accept used or new backpacks that will be sent to the Nagigi Primary School in Savusavu on Vanua Levu, Fiji. For more information about the Backpacks for Fiji project, email Mike Henderson at .