Giving Back: Bridge the Gap Villages, Fiji
Jimmy and Jenny Cahill are the founders of Bridge the Gap Villages, which invests in Fiji's Vorovoro Island community to develop locally driven and sustainable tourism through collaborative business education.
What inspired you to create Bridge the Gap Villages? Over three years ago, our family of five traveled to Vorovoro for ten weeks. This trip represented a springboard for us, a launching pad into creating a life that included doing work that we enjoyed. My husband Jimmy had recently stepped down from a lucrative career he had spent fourteen years building. The job had been a great source of benefits and security, but it hadn't allowed us much time to be together as a family, and it wasn't work that fed him or made him happy. Being truly happy in our family, our life work, and our selves trumped the allure of settling into a lackluster life of security and ease. So, we sold some stuff we didn't really need, bought plane tickets, and set off to rural Fiji for the summer, cautiously trusting that we would know the next path for our lives when we saw it.
As it turns out, the path was made pretty clear! Vorovoro felt like home to us almost from the moment we stepped off the boat. Fijian friends soon became like family, and we ended up staying on to work as community project directors family for the next year. Tui Mali (Vorovoro's chief), his brother Poasa, and their families graciously cared for our family as if we were an extension of their own, and our children became best friends. Over the course of that year, the island became a part of us, and our respect and admiration deepened both for Vorovoro and for the remarkable people who call it home.
When it came time to return home to the United States in November 2010, we did so with a heavy heart and an earnest promise to Tui Mali and his family to return to help them fulfill their vision for Vorovoro and their community: a unique community-based tourism operation that they could operate themselves, where they could continue to strengthen their community's economic situation, share their culture with the world at large, and conserve the traditions and land they hold most sacred.
That's what we are doing through Bridge the Gap Villages. We've created a partnership with the local community and have co-created plans that incorporate unique models of business education/mentorship and vocational/cultural apprenticeship into employment. The Fijian government is actively working to expand tourism to this underdeveloped area, and we want to help our Fijian friends be in the best position to leverage tourism to strengthen their community. Tourism should empower, not exploit.
What did you do before this? Jimmy was our family's primary breadwinner, employed as a manager at a luxury auto dealership. Jenny's primary role was mom and domestic engineer, running an efficient household and raising three curious and engaged world citizens. She was also a founding member of a nonprofit community homeschooling co-op and owned a small business that offered professional childbirth education and services.
Who benefits from your work? Our work immediately and directly benefits the communities of Vorovoro and the Mali Islands in Fiji, the location of our first BTGV project, through employment, apprenticeships, and business training and mentorship. We intend to expand the impact of this responsible tourism and education model throughout the region and the world by refining our open source model and making it available to others who seek ways to harness tourism as a tool for empowering native communities.
Has this changed the way you think about charity and helping others? Social enterprise is opening up the possibilities of creating a living while doing things that make the world a better place. All of us have gifts and skills that can be applied to a purpose that serves others, if that's what we want to do. Bridge the Gap Villages has given us a way to channel our energy into creating the meaning in life we were seeking with our family while giving back to the community that adopted us when we needed it most. And we've definitely learned that the best way to give is to empower others to make their own dreams come true.
What's challenging about working with Fijians? Have you had a lost-in-translation moment? Fijian culture is built on a tribal hierarchy, so the Western patterns of nepotism, for example, pale in comparison to the intricacies of relationships governing a community on a small island. This was difficult for us to navigate initially, as we didn't know whether age, land ownership, or family ties were more important. Ultimately, we've learned to balance our desire to be inclusive and collaborative with the respect due to Tui Mali. His words carry weight with his family and his villages, and, in asking us to work with him to create a new source of hope on Vorovoro, he's committed to finding a way to balance meritocracy with tradition.
What are three favorite things in Fiji? We love to spend time with our Fijian friends drinking kava (a traditional beverage and Fijian social custom), which really means hanging out on woven mats and sharing stories, laughs, and music. And sweets, which someone always breaks out midway through a kava session! We also love to snorkel, and the underwater views around Vorovoro are just phenomenal, allowing discoveries of everything from massive electric blue starfish to turtles and conch. We also love to hike: Vorovoro has a great rugged trail across the four peaks that run along the ridge of the island, and the views are just breathtaking.
Describe a Kodak moment from one of your trips. Oh, wow. How to choose?! When my eldest son Lucas was 10, he became close friends with Jone, one of the young Fijian men we worked with, and got to know his family and neighbors in the village. Jone was a talented musician, and he and Lucas shared a love for drumming. Though Jone didn't own a drum, he blew everyone away with his skills. Jone took work on a faraway island, but he surprised us with a visit several months later. Lucas was thrilled to see him and shared with us that he wanted to give him something special to remember him by. That evening, while all the adults socialized and drank kava throughout the night, Lucas set to work carving a message to Jone into the base of his own djembe drum, which he'd brought from home. This djembe was special — we had it custom made for him by a friend for his birthday and it was one of Lucas' most treasured possessions. When Jone was ready to board the boat to leave the island the next morning, Lucas sheepishly surprised him by gifting him the drum. Jone was deeply touched, and it was a proud, proud moment for us as parents. We haven't seen Jone for a long while now, but we have no doubt our paths will cross again someday.
What's your advice for entrepreneurs who want their businesses have an aspect of global giving? Start with the benefit that you want to impart and work backwards. That way as you are sorting out details large and small, everything is tied back to your purpose. For us, that was empowerment for ownership, which led to the foundational business skills training and mentorship program, which sets Bridge the Gap Villages apart from other tourism endeavors.
Where do you want your company to be in five years? We want the business education and mentorship program to be well-established and consistently graduating Fijian small business entrepreneurs and helping to launch new businesses. We want to have seeded at least five successful locally owned Fijian businesses, and for them to be up and running independently, with others in the prelaunch development process. Additionally, we hope to see other passionate travelers finding ways to apply our model and learnings to new villages in Fiji and beyond.
Where are you traveling next? Vorovoro Island, Fiji! For 2013, our travel sights are solely focused on returning to Fiji, solidly rebuilding the infrastructure on Vorovoro so we can welcome guests, and nurturing the growth of the project so it's up and running in a financially stable way.
Contribute to the campaign to raise the initial funds needed to reopen Vorovoro Island, Fiji, as an ecotourism village community experience in April 2013.
Visit Bridge the Gap Villages' Facebook page and keep up with the latest news on Vorovoro Island.