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Creating a Fiji Supported Holiday Service

It all begins with an idea. We all have them. That spark that many business leaders say initiates the creation of many companies, big and small. Yet inspiration doesn't always begin in the mind. Sometimes they truly come from the heart.

Around 5 years ago, I was working managing a crew of 6 people with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities in a landscaping and lawn mowing enterprise in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs. My crew consisted of 7 amazing individuals who were characters all on their own. Put them in a van, turn up the music, get everybody singing and chatting and you will not find a more concentrated pocket of joy in any part of Sydney at that time.

I was also spending my spare time travelling to Fiji and going to Fiji's Northern Island groups and conducting coral regeneration projects as well as community assistance programs. Plus in Sydney, I was a volunteer tennis coach for Special Olympics, so I really began to feel that my life was developing some sort of purpose.

You know that time in your life when you really begin to take stock and ask those important questions. What is my purpose? What do you want to to spending the rest of your life doing? Many people will tell you that question usually kicks in around your mid to late thirties and it was no different in my case

My twenties and thirties consisted of seeing the world, falling in and out of love and cramming in as much dreams and experiences as I possibly could. So now it was time to see what I really wanted to do, but still do it in a way that was "me" and that no one else could copy.

The lawn service is building momentum and we are becoming very popular with the houses in the South Eastern Suburbs.

One day, I remember we were going from one job to the next, and a Hip Hop song came on that we all liked. As soon as "apple bottomed jeans, boots with the fur..." came on, the van began to bounce and jump as all the guys liked this song as much as I did and we were all bouncing around like a 6 fluro yellow lowriders. Yanni my assistant is smiling that smile that only people with down syndrome have. You know the one where are so happy they feel that that joy cannot be contained and they are literally straining from happiness, forcing that smile to escape their bodies. He stops jumping up and down, grabs my shoulder hard and says "I love you Yianni" (my name is John but he always called me Yianni like his name).

"I love you too mate. I love all of you!" I yelled. It was at that moment, in between all that joy and love that I can truly say my business was born.

On our returns back to base people would hear this music and laughter come out of the ute and many staff members began to take notice and ask questions like, "I want to work with you guys, you guys are always having fun". Although it was physical work, yes we did have fun and we never had any injuries and completed our required jobs. I let the guys be totally themselves and they really came out of their shell, so I guess people could see the positive change and wanted to be a part of this.

One such person was "Vi", a Fijian lady who I had seen around the organisation. I could hear her way before I saw her. That laughter! It was amazing. All those around her were happy. One day, she came to me and said "Bro, your guys look like they are having an amazing time. Any work for me?". She was definitely not shy in coming forward. I didn't tell her about the big contract we were getting as I didn't want to raise her hopes up. I had initially planned a man to assist me, given the very physical nature of the work. I asked her "do you have any experience?".

What did she tell me.....

"Bro' I have years of experience working as a landscaper and mower in my church-praise the lord-and have run my own lawn service-praise the lord". Everything is "praise the lord" with her and even our guys would make fun of her and say "praise the lord whenever she would speak"

"I may have something for you. Ill let you know", I told her. Didn't I make a mistake uttering those words. Before I knew it she would be ringing me or texting me asking for work. I had interviewed many more people with greater strength and much more skill than Vi or myself for that matter. But that vital element was missing. That something from the heart that is innate and no amount of experience can give you when working with people with disabilities and she had it in spades. Against the advice of my managers, I put her on.

When on the first day she asked me where the key to my lawnmower was, I began to have some doubts. "Viniana these lawnmowers don't have a key, you start them by pulling the chord". I gave her a look and she gave me one of those looks that people give you when they know that you have them figured. So how does she rect to this? She began to laugh uncontrollably. And so did I. "Crap", I said. "I just employed a person with no experience for this job", you told me you had experience". By this stage she had her hands in the air and saying "yeeessss" and dancing and praising the lord and soon all our group were dancing and laughing and hugging her.

To cut a long story short, she was a real shocker on the job. We would wait for her and she would come late with some excuse or sometimes no excuse at all, just a "chill bro, its Fiji time" which would crack everybody up. Plus, sometimes, she really was having quiet conversations with "God" over my shoulder. Literally nodding her head and moving her lips to someone behind me. A real, legitimate conversation. I would turn around and ask God in my most polite way "excuse me Lord, sorry to interrupt, but we really should get to Lisa's house to start on her lawns. We promised her we'd be there at 3.30". To which she and the team would crack up. Looking back, she was the worst person for the job, but if I had to do it again I would employ her back in a heartbeat if I was working there. Why? Because in some jobs, having years of experience, winning awards, getting promoted and having skill mean absolutely nothing. Caring is one such job. As long as you make sure that our guys are safe, can complete reports and assist me to make them feel proud of themselves and happy with their day, that is half of what I need. The other half, the most important half is to truly feel some genuine care, real care not "political care" or "look at me" care, but something that is such a part of you that you cannot help but be.

Fast forward a year working together. I had just got back from a tour I did with some US High school students in Fiji and it was there that I thought. I should do something like this for people with disabilities. I went back to work and began to formulate a business model and asked Viniana, what do you think about this and she said "Bro, this is amazing, I will pray to the lord to see that.......". "Thanks Viniana", I replied " but, can you see my concept and if I do this will you come with me and assist me"

"Yessssssss" she replied.

Isn't it strange with ideas, when you create an idea, give it words, start formulating a plan around it, ticking off each goal that needs to be completed before you can initiate the next. It almost becomes a tangible force that inadvertently becomes a part of you and begins to touch those that will help make this happen, even when you think you have done nothing to initiate this. Such was the case with my Heart Of Fiji tour.

I started getting really positive feedback from parents and many Directors of certain disability organisations who began to hear about my lawn service and Special Olympics tennis coaching. Many people from these networks began asking me, "it would be great if you could take our son on holidays" or, "you should set up a holiday service". I had not told anyone about this yet here I was getting these requests for me to take their sons or daughters away from their care and giving me that responsibility. I guess I didn't realise how much trust, respect and reputation are of vital importance in this industry. More so than experience. Many of these influential people assisted me in this venture. Many who had brothers, sons or daughters with intellectual disabilities and to them I am forever grateful.

I will not go into all the work that is required to set up a business of this type, as this is not what this post is about. I have begun my tour company and am finalising the employment of local Fijian carers and nurses for a respite service that will compliment my supported tours. Heart Of Fiji aims to be Fiji's only dedicated supported tour for people with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as Fiji's only respite service for parents travelling with children requiring specialist support.

I guess what I am trying to say is that in some businesses, your heart must be the initial spark in a business idea and your mind assumes the role of the hearts guide that will turn your hearts concept into a practical, working business model. Also if you do something with purpose and a genuine care to want to help others, you will never fail.

I have just got back from another Fijian adventure with three wonderful participants. It really seems that I have found my life's purpose. Oh, and Vi is now my assistant on these tours. "Praise the Lord"

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