Thanks to 34-year-old Kristin Bibbs, Samoan citizens have someone to call when they need help.
Of course, they don’t call her personally — there’s a time difference of about 20 hours between B.C. and Samoa, and Bibbs is kept pretty busy with her job as fundraising manager at Reach Child and Youth Development Society. But they can use the help line she created when she volunteered with the Samoa Victim Support Group in 2013.
That wasn’t the plan when Bibbs headed to the Pacific islands. She was originally going to provide counselling for girls who had been abused and teach English and basic math to a few boys who walked in from the surrounding area.
“I had always known I wanted to do something overseas — I don’t know why,” she said. “It was just on my bucket list, something I always wanted to do.”
For months, Bibbs worked to fundraise enough money to send herself to Samoa. The community at the Kennedy Pub, where she was employed as a server, rallied around her and raised $8,000 in one night.
“I swear, every regular at the pub came out for my fundraiser. The place was packed,” she said. “I was totally overwhelmed by the giving nature of everybody.”
In addition to the money, the North Delta community also donated a box full of toiletries, school supplies and toys which Bibbs brought with her to Samoa. Missing from the box — a blackboard eraser.
“I had written all over the blackboard, and I went to go erase it, and there was nothing to erase it with,” she said. “So I grabbed my flip flop and I was using the bottom of my flip flop to wipe down the blackboard.”
Bibbs met fellow volunteer Ralph Kluge in their first week in Samoa. He had experience volunteering for a help line in Australia and Bibbs had been volunteering with the Fraser Health Crisis Line before she went to Samoa.
“It kind of became my mission along with Ralph…to put [a help line] together,” she said.
Bibbs saw first-hand the difficulties of getting support in Samoa’s isolated villages, especially for victims of abuse. In many instances, penalties for abusers are surprisingly light — “it could be a case of canned herring,” Bibbs said — and financial stressors can make it almost impossible for victims to leave their village to get help.
When Bibbs and Kluge decided to create a help line to attempt to alleviate these issues, “we hit the pavement pretty much right away,” she said.
They worked with community liaisons to spread the idea and arranged meetings with the Samoan phone company DigiCel.
Those meetings were key: they not only needed to get a toll-free number “that would provide people, even if they didn’t have minutes, the ability to call this number if they were in distress,” Bibbs said, but also headsets for volunteers.
It only took about a week to get approval from DigiCel, but the contract negotiations were ongoing even as they were training the 14 volunteers who would keep the help line running.
Bibbs left to go back to Canada as soon as the training was finished, and it was three years before she was able to go back to Samoa to see how her help line had changed the island.
“I was floored when I went back this time,” she said.
“Since the help line has been operating, the awareness has increased exponentially of the abuse taking place.”
Because of the increased awareness, there has also been an increase in penalization for abusers, Bibbs said. Perpetrators are starting to be prosecuted and imprisoned, so the victims can stay in their village without fear of prosecution.
Although Bibbs originally started the help line with victims of abuse in mind, that’s not the only reason people use it; they also call for help with mental illness, depression, hunger, alcoholism and other issues.
The help line has evolved since Bibbs first did the training in 2013, moving from a western model to one that’s uniquely Samoan.
“Here, it’s totally anonymous,” Bibbs said. Not so much over there.
“There have been cases where somebody has called in because their family is starving or their home has collapsed,” she said. “Word gets out and it ends up being the whole community rallies around them to build a house.”
Having helped create something that has made such a change in a community is “a little bit overwhelming — it’s kind of surreal,” Bibbs said.
“[For] both of [us], our biggest fear was that it would just fall apart. Like, who’s going to carry it on? But they have.”