Pacific health is wealth

From a young age, Chamilka Punchihewa knew she wanted to help people.

ChamilkaAfter starting a new role as a Health Facilitator working with the Pacific community, she decided to sign up to the Pacific Heartbeat course Certificate of Proficiency in Pacific Nutrition, knowing it would help her make a difference to the lives of the people she supports.

"Since I was young what drove me was the fact that I could help people. I guess I have been brought up with those values of caring for people. Family is everything. My grandmother always says, 'Health is wealth', you can be as rich as you like money wise, but if you are not healthy then what do you have?"

Chamilka works as a Health Facilitator for a programme called Active Futures, a free programme run across South and East Auckland which promotes better nutrition and increased physical activity for preschool children and their families. 

Wanting to gain further education in nutrition, she asked her manager if she could sign up to the Certificate of Proficiency in Pacific Nutrition course.

Chamilka knew the information covered in the course would help her make a difference in her role, but she says it’s also made her more understanding and empathetic.

"This is the first time I've worked in a mostly Pacific context. I have heard about the statistics, but it's so different to the reality. I realise that yes, Pacific people have the highest rate of heart disease, but I didn't know the 'why' behind it. The course has changed the way I see Pacific health, it has informed me more about the 'why' behind the numbers.

"If somebody was to take-over my job tomorrow, I would recommend they complete the course. It would give them so much confidence to go out there and facilitate."

Armed with new information, Chamilka was freshly inspired to make a difference with the families she works so closely with.

"A lot of the time the families don’t realise, or nobody has told them, simple things like why you should switch from one type of food to another. 

"What does ‘eat healthy’ actually mean? A lot of parents say, 'Oh the doctor told me to eat healthy,' but nobody tells them what that means. So, just breaking down things and giving examples, like portion size, is really helpful."

Chamilka's job mostly involves home visits with families every couple of weeks. Since doing the course, she now feels more empowered to facilitate these visits and she also has new strategies as to how she shares her knowledge, especially with Pacific families.

"Just driving up and down the same street, you will get two completely different families, and how you present your message is very important. A lot of parents know what they need to do, but no one has ever given them that nudge.

Empowering communities

"I don't pick the topics, they do. My job is to empower them by asking them questions, because I’m there as a support person, not an expert."

Chamilka says thanks to insights from the course she also now sees similarities between her own culture and that of the Pacific people she is working with.

"I found there is a lot of similarity between the Pacific culture and my own culture – Sri Lankan. I think we probably do half of the things that we suggest Pacific people avoid. Through learning about that, I find it’s easier for me to relate to Pacific people."

She was also prompted into thinking about making changes in her personal life.

"I do feel guilty if I get takeaways late at night, if I'm tired. With my job, I have to walk the talk, so I do feel bad if I don’t eat healthy. And it's not just feeling bad, I want to do what's best for myself as well, I want to make sure I'm healthy and a role model.

"The course messages are delivered very simply, even the complex ones. This is helpful for the parents that I work with, because they often don't have a lot of time, so they just need to figure out practical things that they can do, and I think the course really showed me how I can help support them to do this.

"Clients will thank me, and I will say 'Don't thank me, I didn't do anything, it was all you.' That's how it should be, I want the parents to feel like 'We did it.'"

Pacific Heartbeat offers a variety of nutrition courses which can help you, your family and community eat better and live well.

Find out which course best suits your needs and how you can register.

Find a courseRead more graduate stories