The Kiwanis Club Melbourne Cup Ladies’ lunch has become a firm favourite event in the annual social calendar in Port Vila. This year, guests at Warwick Le Lagon on Tuesday, November 1 (today) can look forward to glasses of bubbles, fashions on the field, a live band, sweeps and raffles. But behind the glamorous hats, gorgeous dresses and an opportunity for a flutter on the horses lies the series business of raising money for projects which support women and children in Vanuatu.

One of the Kiwanis’ Club’s longest-running partnerships has been with Caroline Salisbury, founder of the Threads Across the Pacific project. A former Polytechnic manager from New Zealand, Salisbury first came to Vanuatu as a cruise ship passenger. She took back to New Zealand many happy memories of her visit and, when Cyclone Pam struck in 2015, she was determined to do something to help.

A keen quilter, Salisbury’s first instinct was to try to provide beautiful, warm quilts to families who had been displaced by the cyclone. By reaching out to quilt clubs across New Zealand, she was able to gather together an astonishing 720 hand-made quilts, which she delivered to Vanuatu herself.

It was in the process of delivering quilts to Mele village that Salisbury spotted in an older lady’s home a treasured but rusted hand-operated Singer sewing machine. This sparked a conversation between the two keen seamstresses about how immensely valuable a replacement sewing machine or two would be to women in the village, enabling them to sew clothes for their families and for sale.

Salisbury returned to New Zealand resolved to help out. One advert in a Tauranga newspaper later, she had collected up 40 sewing machines, which she brought back to two villages. Sewing classes followed. Six months later she was back again with more machines, supplied at cost by Bernina NZ. And so began a pattern of six-monthly visits, each bringing sewing machines, materials and skills training. While Salisbury and her friends largely self-funded their trips, church groups, women’s groups and service organisations in New Zealand were all talked into supporting the effort by buying sewing machines or materials for the project.

After assisting Salisbury with her project for a couple of years the Kiwanis New Zealand District along with Kiwanis Club of Port Vila voted at the District Convention held in 2018 in Port Vila to officially label the project “Kiwanis Threads Across the Pacific project”.

Through his partnership, which is now in its fifth year, Kiwanis clubs based in New Zealand became among the most regular sponsors of machines and materials, while Kiwanis Vanuatu helped to ship, clear and arrange onward delivery of sewing machines, fabric and thread to partner organisations. As Salisbury visits this year, Kiwanis Club of Port Vila have supplied a rental vehicle and assisted with accommodation and travel costs.

Fast forward to 2022, and Kiwanis Threads Across the Pacific has partnerships with Mele village sewing room; Vanuatu Society for People with Disabilities; Onesua College, Teouma Christian College, Melemaat school and Pango sewing group and works with VPF Women to support their family violence unit. These partnerships provide not only machines and materials, but also sewing training and help with maintaining and repairing the equipment.

Looking to the future, Salisbury’s aim is to hand the day-to-day running of Kiwanis Threads Across the Pacific to Ni-Vanuatu women, to help them to become leaders and trainers in sewing and dressmaking. She is hugely proud that two of her Ni-Van partners have already taken up scholarships in Fiji to develop their sewing skills. The next step will be to help them and other talented “mamas” train as trainers so they can help the next generation of seamstresses to build the skills which will enable them to support themselves and their families. Maybe they will be making some of the dresses which will appear at next year’s Melbourne Cup lunch?

The President of Kiwanis Club of Port Vila, Mark Stafford, comments that Kiwanis is very pleased to have been able to support this great project and hope that they can assist to assure its ongoing success. It not only provides a great opportunity for the women in the communities to get together, but also provides for the opportunity to achieve a level of financial independence that otherwise would not have been available to them.