It was a Sunday, the hours of fasting during the Ramadan season, in Bintan. I had not expected anybody to be at the learning centre opened by the Island Foundation. But Andrew Dixon, one of the owners of Nikoi Island, had called ahead.
I wanted to see one of the five learning centres opened by the Island Foundation, the Singapore-based charity set up by Nikoi to raise English and IT literacy among rural children on this island which sits in Indonesia’s Riau Province.
We were on the way back to Singapore after a blissful 24 hours on the island of Nikoi and the learning centre was on the way to the ferry terminal.
Our car pulls up in front of a small blue house. The doors are open and a group of men are waiting for us. One comes up to greet us and welcomes us inside the centre. Shelves of English children’s books line the wall. The men are all teachers and they’ve been trained by volunteer teachers from Singapore, mainly from United World College in Singapore which, I am told, sends about 80-100 teachers a year to “train the teacher”.
All in, there are 500 kids enrolled in the programme, Dixon tells me. “It’s hard to believe this is only an hour away from Singapore, and there are kids who need a helping hand in education. We believe with English and IT, they can have access to better opportunities in life.”
The idea for the Island Foundation took root when one day, one of Dixon’s staff was visiting a local village in the area. “A local villager told him that he must be so proud of working for such a company as Nikoi because of what we were doing for local villagers and he was bristling with such pride when he said this,” said Dixon.
“I realized then that not only were we having a good impact on the community but also it made staff proud.”
And so two years ago, he formally set up the Island Foundation which is run independently by a full-time staff Heena Patel. The Foundation was kick-started initially by Nikoi, which donated funds it would normally have given to marketing – the resort spends no money on advertising – but now is getting external donations.
Each year, Nikoi donates a weekend to hold a fund-raising event. Last year, the event raised S$80,000 and this year, another $60,000 was added to the coffers. Out of the second event came two corporate donations each worth S$100,000 each.
With that money, it’s built five learning centres and libraries. In the longterm, it hopes to establish a teacher training school.
The local teachers told me that what was really needed currently were computers and a curriculum. “We have enough books but we need computers so the children can learn how to use them – not just to write but how to make things, design things,” one of them said.
The Island Foundation is also helping local villagers develop local arts and crafts and among the group of teachers that day was a handicraft maker who’s teaching kids how to make things from recyclable materials.
Dixon said Nikoi recently found a local “gasing” (traditional top) maker and is working with him to create “gasing” for contemporary tastes. “We also gave some beads to the sea gypsies and asked them to do something with them and the beads they came back with were very interesting. Now we’ve brought in a master stringer from the UK to help them refine the knots and details.”
The idea is to eventually create a retail brand, KuraKura, and sell items (pictured below) to guests with part of the proceeds going back to the community.
I asked the local teachers what they hoped to achieve through the Island Foundation. “Better jobs for our children,” one said. “Not just in tourism but elsewhere. Maybe some of them can leave Bintan for jobs overseas.”
• The Island Foundation is WIT 2012’s charity. A painting to be painted by Gregory Burns, Paralympian and artist, will be completed at WIT and auctioned off, along with other items, on October 17 at the “Art of Travel” event, hosted by Circos Brand Karma.