Rotarian George Maybee gets hooked on helping remote Pacific atoll
Top: Rotarian George Maybee with a local girl on Kiritimati. Bottom: The Rotary Club of Commerce City provided this septic tank pumper truck, the only one in the country of Kiribati.
I got into fly-fishing in high school in California, USA. A good friend taught me how to tie flies and build fly rods, and we’d catch steelhead trout in the Russian River. Since then, I’ve gone as often as I can. With this sport, you’re not out relaxing on a dock; you’re hunting. You’re trying to fool the fish by imitating how their food moves in the water. It’s a physical and mental game, and it gets you out into some amazing places.
In 2004, my wife, Sharon, and I flew to Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, as it’s known, which is the world’s largest coral atoll. This is one of the few places where you can fly-fish in saltwater. We took a chartered turboprop plane out of Honolulu, a five-hour trip.
The island, which is part of the Republic of Kiribati, has coral flats that are about 2 feet under water. You take a boat way out into the Pacific Ocean and stand on a flat, and then you wait for the bonefish to come in from the deep water. They’re called “gray ghosts” because they blend in with their surroundings. Many times, you won’t see the fish; you’ll just see a shadow. This is a very strong fish – it can take 45 minutes to land one.
On Christmas Island, there are no minerals in the soil, no natural resources, so there aren’t many things the people can manufacture. The country’s only industry is copra, which is dried coconut meat. The government also licenses fishing rights to other nations. As much as a quarter of the country’s income comes from foreign aid, but most of that goes to the capital, Tarawa, which is 2,000 miles from Kiritimati. It was astonishing to see how little the islanders have.
Our fishing guide’s name was Biita Kairaoi. He was a joy to talk to. He was learning English from all the fishermen he met. My wife asked him, “How many children do you have?” He said, “Oh, I’ve got a lot. Would you like to meet them?” We went to his home, and those children – well, they just wanted to be close to you. He had six children then. And they were very, very poor. When we left Kiritimati, we hugged Biita, his wife, and his children, and my wife said, “Biita, it’s like I’m leaving my family. If you ever need anything, please give us a call.” There were only five phones on the entire island.
We got on the plane, and we looked at each other. “What are we going to do?” Sharon said. “I don’t know,” I said, “but we have to do something.”
Birth of a project
We consider ourselves “retired to Rotary.” We’re members of the Rotary Club of Commerce City, Colorado, and we log about 40 to 50 hours of volunteer work every week. But at that moment, we had never done an international service project.
After we returned home from Christmas Island, we got a call, and it was Biita. He said, “George, my church has never had an Easter candle. Could you get me a candle?” I said, “Sure, no problem.” I picked one out, and we sent it off. When we went back the following January, we got a tap on our door, and it was the church’s priest. “A committee would like to meet with you,” he said. We thought we would see five or six people, but there were about 500, from four churches. “For months we prayed for a candle, and no candle arrived,” one of the oldest men said. “Many gave up, but we continued to pray, and then, from above, it was a miracle. You are our miracle.” And we were hooked.
We spent the next week talking to people in the government and going to the hospital and schools, getting an idea of their needs and what Rotarians might be able to do. We asked the nurses and doctors, “What could you use?” They said, “Maybe some aspirin and some Band-Aids.” I said, “No, what do you need?” The nurses actually took a step back. They didn’t know what to ask for. Finally, a doctor said, “Do you suppose you could get us some beds?” We said, “Oh, yeah.” They said, “Really?” Then we found out that the maternity area had no birthing tables. The operating room had no anesthesia.
Water to drink
We learned, too, that water is not safe to drink anywhere on the island. Because Christmas Island is a coral atoll – basically the top of an old volcano – there’s little fresh water. There are no rivers, no lakes. The only water they have, other than rainwater, comes from what they call “freshwater lenses.” If you take a shovel and dig about 6 feet down through the sand, you’ll hit a lens, which is a pocket of semi-fresh water that’s floating on top of salt water.
Almost everybody has one or two pigs in the yard, and the pigs’ urine trickles down through the sand and contaminates the freshwater lenses. That makes the water phenomenally high in nitrates, which causes severe health problems in pregnant women and babies. And there’s E. coli and all kinds of other bacteria in it too, so everyone gets a lot of diarrhea and internal infections.
At the end of that week, we came away with a huge list of things that the people needed. But there weren’t any Rotary clubs in Kiribati, so we couldn’t apply for a Matching Grant from The Rotary Foundation. Fortunately, we found out that our district would let us use another type of grant in a country without Rotary clubs. So we formed a group called Friends of Christmas Island, and we put together three of these grants. We got a lot of outside help from people in the fly-fishing community.
Our first delivery was a load of major medical items, which we acquired from an orthopedic clinic that had gone out of business. We put them in wooden crates, put the crates in a 20-foot container, and sent it to Hawaii. There the crates came out of the container, then went on a 110-foot ship to be transported to the island. It was a time-consuming and costly endeavor.We also shipped an 18,000-pound septic tank pumping truck on a C-17 Globemaster provided by the U.S. military. You just have to say, “There’s nothing you can’t do,” and go do it.
Sharon and I took our granddaughter, who was nine, to help out on the island. One new mother named a baby after her. For a few years, the kids would ask, “How’s Jessica?”
Forming a Rotary club
We realized that we had to figure out how to get a Rotary club in Kiribati. With Rotarians from Fiji (about 2,000 miles away) in District 9920, we helped organize the Rotary Club of Kiritimati, which was chartered in August 2008. Biita was treasurer.
Now our group is putting toilets and hand-washing stations at four schools on the island. That project, funded with a Matching Grant, is about three-quarters done. One benefit is that it will help the girls finish high school; otherwise, they quit school when they start having their period, because they need privacy – they just can’t go out in the bush anymore. Then we put together another Matching Grant project to supply 600 ceramic water filters. We’re also trying to create safe stoves. Traditionally, cooking is done outside – they dig a pit in the sand, light a fire, and boil their fish or soup. It’s smoky and dangerous.
Sharon and I have helped bring over $1.2 million in humanitarian aid to the island. Once other clubs hear about the work, it’s easy to get support. The Rotary Club of Kona, Hawaii, has partnered on three projects. We got assistance from the U.S. Navy Seabees. The Mormon church has helped us get hygiene kits and school bags. We’re working with a group in Texas called Pacific Islands Medical Aid, which has done 100 cataract operations there in one week, and also brought in diabetes and heart specialists. We provided all the equipment for a dental clinic, and the island’s first dentist is visiting from Madagascar for two years. We’ve had a number of friends on the island come up to us and say, “Look at my teeth!” and smile.
We’ve sent more than two dozen wheelchairs and 100 canes, walkers, and pairs of crutches. So many of the people could not get out of their hut unless somebody carried them, but now they can. We’ve also sent 108 computers to a high school, and now through the Internet, the kids have friends around the world.
Since we began the work on Christmas Island, Sharon and I have gone fly-fishing in north-central Mongolia and in a First Nations area of British Columbia, Canada. We’ve started or helped with humanitarian projects in those places too. People tell us: “You can’t leave the country anymore, because you’ll come back with another project.”