THE deep, blue tropical waters and balmy weather might attract many people to Fiji, but Sarah Verdon has only one thought in mind as she gets ready to take up a job in the holiday isle.
As a speech pathologist, Ms Verdon is passionate about helping people achieve their goals and is particularly keen to help children.
The 27-year-old is currently studying her PhD at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst and her goal is the development of high quality, equitable, culturally appropriate services for all children to facilitate positive outcomes for educational and social engagement.
To see her goal realised, she successfully applied for a 2015 Endeavour Postgraduate Scholarship to help fund a six-month placement working as a speech therapist in Fiji.
“I am delighted to have been selected to receive this prestigious award,” she said.
“My dream is to provide all children with the opportunity to develop strong skills in speech, language, communication and literacy during their early childhood years.”
During her time in Fiji Ms Verdon plans to speak to parents of children, along with community members, to assess what they believe children with speech difficulties need rather than impose “Western ideals” of what treatment should be.
It was during her work in Canada that Ms Verdon came across this method, and she believes it will have a longer-lasting impact on the Fijian community.
“I want it to be based on what the community and parents want for their kids, not what I think they should have,” she said.
“My thesis is to do it in a culturally sensitive way, as opposed to Western ways.”
Ms Verdon said the only speech therapy programs in Fiji are delivered on an ad hoc basis by Westerners, and she believes this is not sustainable in the long term.
The program she will deliver during her scholarship will be to work with the local community so they can continue to work with the children after she has left.
“It’s about empowering the community because they know what’s best for their children,” she said.
Ms Verdon is no stranger to working overseas as a speech therapist, having worked with culturally diverse people in 14 countries.
“I wanted to learn how people did speech therapy to people with culturally diverse backgrounds,” she said.
After returning from her research trip to Fiji, Ms Verdon will re-focus her efforts on helping children in Australia.
“According to our last Census, one-in-four people don’t have English as a first language,” she said.
“One-in-six Australians don’t speak English when they start school.
“Often children with learning difficulties tend to stop speaking their own language, but that’s the wrong advice.”
Speech difficulties in children can have long-lasting impacts across their lifetime, according to Ms Verdon, and she hopes to work with children from diverse backgrounds who have learning difficulties.
“Kids are pretty amazing and they tend to pick up languages pretty quickly, but if they do have disabilities and learning difficulties they often don’t get the support they need,” she said.
“That has life-long implications on finishing school and getting a job.”
Federal member for Calare John Cobb said the government funding recognises that Ms Verdon is one of Australia’s top performing postgraduates.
“I’m thrilled she’s been selected to further her skills and knowledge while developing Australia’s research links overseas,” he said.
“Having spoken with Sarah about her vision to not only help children with speech problems in Fiji, but also leave a lasting legacy that can help thousands of children, I couldn’t help but be impressed.”
While her scholarship placement will not begin until mid-2015, Ms Verdon is excited about making a difference, and the potential to bring speech therapy programs to Australia.
“I hope that if it’s successful, we could pick it up and use it here [in Australia] in terms of culturally and linguistically diverse communities,” she said.
“I think it’s very exciting, I think it’s going to be a great learning experience for me. I’ll go in seeking as much as I can from the people of Fiji.”