As professional musicians and keen amateur sailors, Miriam and Peter Handsworth never imagined their achievements could be used on a medical mission to Vanuatu.
But then they stumbled across the work of Medical Sailing Ministries (MSM), co-founded in 2009 by Robert Latimer, the financial planner (now retired) from Melbourne, helping teams of doctors and dentists go to remote island communities in Vanuatu to to provide their medical services and dental supplies.
Miriam and Peter have now taken a sabbatical from working as music teachers at Redlands College in Brisbane to – with their six-year-old daughter Clara – sail to Vanuatu, where they are currently docking in Port Vila before heading north to Espiritu Santo in that country Week.
They participate in a supervised school teeth-brushing program called Gudfala Tut Skul, which means “school for healthy teeth” in the local Bislama language. Her job is to visit ten schools on the west coast of Ambae Island, one of more than 60 inhabited islands that make up the archipelagic state of Vanuatu.
The Gudfala Tut Skul brushing program has been running since 2018 and is now being carried out daily in about 40 kindergartens and schools, involving about 3500 children directly and indirectly about 12-15,000 family and household members.
“Hopefully, when they see funny faces like ours, it reminds them to keep cleaning.” – Miriam Handsworth
According to the 2017 National Oral Health Survey, an estimated 70 percent of children ages five to seven in Vanuatu have tooth decay and bleeding gums, and over 40 percent of school students never or rarely brush their teeth.
“It’s easy to help with the toothbrush program and get the kids to brush their teeth, and hopefully when they see funny faces like ours it will remind them to keep brushing,” says Miriam eternity via zoom from her yacht in Port Vila harbour.
The Handsworths have formed an association called Remote Sailing Ministries (RSM) which brings together a small dedicated group of staff and friends to hold them accountable and also brainstorm.
On this first trip, they will work with medical volunteers, local health workers from the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu (PCV Health) and Vanuatu government workers at pre-arranged locations to transport them, their gear, supplies and equipment to the remote islands where clinics are located in be carried out in village environments. They must draw on their extensive sailing experience to find safe anchorages on the islands’ challenging rocky shores and fringing reefs.
You’ll spend most of your time on Ambae Island, which was devastated by a volcanic eruption in 2017. There was a very real danger that the mountain and island of Ambae would explode in a devastating eruption, so the Vanuatu government evacuated all of Ambae to nearby safe islands. It was a traumatic experience for people to sail from their villages and homes and although many have returned, many buildings are in dire need of repairs.
“One of the things I’m going to help with is putting roofs on some of these houses,” says Peter.
As musicians, the family will also entertain the school children with some songs – with Peter on clarinet, Miriam on bassoon and Clara on violin. And in partnership with Gideons, they will be distributing Bibles in Bislama and English/French to middle school children.
“As a kid growing up in Australia, I always thought I was a bit useless as a missionary because I was a musician and I wasn’t a doctor or a nurse or the kind of person that a traditional missionary is,” says Miriam.
“So this is exciting. We come out to work with some kids in the elementary schools and there’s this mix of evangelism and helping – and trying to get that right… It’s a bit presumptuous for me to come here when I feel like that the nation is more Christian than ours, so who are we to start saying something? But I think the most important thing is encouragement and side by side.”
“I always thought that being a musician would make me a little useless as a missionary.” – Miriam Handsworth
Both Miriam and Peter view this trip as an experimental journey with limited goals and they hope it will prove to be the first of many visits.
“I’m trying to figure out where this grooming program from Gudfala Tut is going. They have 40 sites right now – kids and schools – but obviously the whole country would benefit from a nationwide rollout and it’s a matter of figuring out how best to do that because when you get more stakeholders involved it gets more complex.” , Miriam thinks.
“Right now it’s at the base and that’s good. We only do it because we really want to, and there are no other ulterior motives. At this point we have raised an amount through the Tooth Buddies sponsorship program in Australia which will enable us to open ten more schools directly involving around 500 children. It’s funny, for the price of just three cappuccinos, about $12, a kid can enroll in the program for a year.”
For Miriam, the South Pacific was a personal passion due to family connections.
“The South Pacific has always been part of our family because my mother was on the board of directors of the Church Missionary Society and we used to come to Australia as missionaries from the Solomon Islands for conferences,” she says.
“My father [Graeme Butler] worked here with YWAM on Pacific Ruby [Youth With a Mission] in the 80s and 90s as an optician. And he mounted Tanna [volcano] when they still had the cargo cult guy [John Frum] and they wouldn’t let anyone just climb up. Dad was very privileged at that point because he worked for the people and they let him climb the volcano. So it’s a nice connection to what my dad did in the past.”
As a relatively new Christian, Peter’s main interest is evangelism.
“Of course we are not here to change the world, but we are here to invite people to re-read the gospel, to talk to them about our lives, to be a witness of Jesus Christ and to distribute Bibles” , he says.
“I have come to the Lord rather late, but with great ferocity.” – Peter Handsworth
Peter came to Christ about seven years ago after a very successful career in music and science.
“I was a professor for international orchestral musicians at a German university, came to Australia and headed a department at a large university in Australia. Anyway, the way I see it now, God took things away one by one. I had a previous marriage – collapsed, had a business, it collapsed, and my children from that previous marriage went to live with their mother in Sweden. And so things were taken from me that I had used as crutches in my life to prove myself and I ended up pretty much flat on the ground.
“I’d always believed in God, but I didn’t have a personal relationship. And things came together pretty quickly. I met Miriam and her family and after spending some time in the family home, a house of God that proclaimed that Jesus Christ is Lord, I really woke up and it was a bit like coming home.”
After he began attending church and reading the Bible seriously, he discovered “a deep passion for learning more about the Word of God, for learning more about Him, who He is and His promises and what He is for me and my life is ready. So I came to the Lord rather late, but with great ferocity.”
When asked what a difference becoming a Christian has made in his life, Peter says it has eliminated the need for one’s proud success.
“I’ve been a very ambitious musician in my career, and I probably played pretty hard, as anyone has to do to get anywhere in professional music. I left it completely and I don’t regret it. The biggest change in my life is that I tend to stop looking over my shoulder and worrying about the world and what is expected of me. I struggle tremendously because there is always a big backlog of habits in my life, but the hope and promises of the Bible, the Word, have made up for that many times over.”
For Miriam, another driving force of this project is the impact on Clara, who she is homeschooling this semester.
“It’s just the whole idea of showing her this privileged world that she lives in, not the only world, and hoping that will have a longer lasting impact. And also to come and help these kids here because they are beautiful.”
Peter encourages any men with sailing experience who would like to join them on this or any other voyage to email him [email protected]. Anyone wishing to support the Handsworths through prayer or in any other way can also contact them through the same email.
“We simply pray that our work will not be seen as divisive or intrusive by the local people, but rather that it shows our love for one another and therefore our love for the Lord,” concludes Peter.
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