April 12, 2024

Adventist School Graduates First Deaf Student in Vanuatu

Ongoing support and investment has made a difference, school leaders say.

Olivia Fairfax, Adventist Record, and Adventist Review
Jeanette Bice (left), a young woman who, after years of ongoing support by an Adventist school, reportedly became the first Deaf student in Vanuatu to graduate. [Photo: Adventist Record]

Matafanga Adventist Primary and Special Needs School was the first school in Vanuatu to specifically cater to children with special needs. Jeanette Bice, a Deaf student who has attended the school since it first opened, has now graduated, reportedly the first in that nation to do so.

Jeanette and her sister Suzie, who is also Deaf, had developed their own style of sign language at home as they were unfamiliar with standard sign language, which posed a significant challenge to Jeanette’s education. Her teachers were unfamiliar with her style of sign language and did not know how to communicate academic concepts to her. However, after spending time with Jeanette as well as receiving some sign language materials, Naomi Turnbull, one of the school’s founders, was able to communicate with Jeanette and teach her numbers, the alphabet, and a few basic hand signs. 

After a few years, more Deaf students enrolled in the school, and Turnbull saw that they needed help. Turnbull contacted Kimberley Davey, who travelled to Vanuatu from Australia and spent several months as a volunteer, teaching sign language to the students and arranging sign language dictionaries for each Deaf student. Davey also helped the two sign language teachers in Vanuatu to understand more Auslan, the Australian Sign Language. With the help of Davey, the students experienced a marked improvement in their learning.

As Jeanette progressed in her studies, Turnbull sought assistance to further Jeanette’s education by reaching out to Christian Services for the Blind and Hearing Impaired (CSFBHI), which is part of Adventist Media at the South Pacific Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. That organization arranged a scholarship to help Jeanette and her teacher, Forine, to travel to Australia for two months. During this time, they attended church each Saturday (Sabbath) and also a Deaf camp. These experiences provided spiritual and social opportunities for Jeanette to interact with other Deaf Christians and improve her sign language skills. Jeanette and Forine were also provided with Auslan lessons for one to two hours each week.

This time in Australia proved to be a huge asset to both Jeanette and Forine and motivated all the other Deaf students at Matafanga to learn more.

In December 2023, after 15 years of being a student at Matafanga, Jeanette sat for her year 10 national exams and passed, reportedly the first Deaf student to do so in Vanuatu.

According to Turnbull, Jeanette is now enrolled at Aore Adventist Academy for year 11, although she is struggling without the support of her sign language teacher. 

“I think Jeanette could possibly benefit from hearing aids or a cochlea implant, if funding was available,” Turnbull said.

The Matafanga school currently has more than 100 students and was opened by Mark and Naomi Turnbull in 2008. When the school first opened, the Turnbulls faced serious opposition from other denominations wanting the school to be closed due to their Adventist beliefs. However, because the school was operating as a Special Needs School, it was allowed to remain open. Since opening, the school has a track record of a 100-percent pass rate for every year 8 and year 10 student in Vanuatu’s national exams.

The original version of this story was posted by Adventist Record.