SJU senior starts nonprofit initiative, impacts South Pacific communities

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October 28, 2016

By Annie Dittberner '17

Richard Larkin McLay

Richard Larkin McLay '17 meets with the chief and principle on Pélé island after the school supplies are unloaded.


A typical site/compound structure in Vanuatu, where shacks are very basically built. On the left is a Kava hut, where they sell Kava, a very popular South pacific island drink made from the roots of a Kava plant. On the right is a "top up" sign where people can top up on their minutes for their phones if they have them.

Medical Supplies

Medical supply closet in the only medical center on the northern part of the island in Paonangisu. 

Richard Larkin McLay was born with a piece of the Pacific Ocean nation of Vanuatu close to his heart.

His grandmother, Peggy Larkin, lived in the country for 14 years. Growing up, the Saint John's University senior heard many stories about her.

"She was always that person that would stick up for the locals and the villagers on the island," Richard said. "She was kind of a guardian for the people there."

Like grandmother, like grandson.

In January 2016, the Eagan, Minnesota, native traveled to Vanuatu with his mother, Pam Larkin, for three weeks to deliver relief aid and food to the country, which dealt with two natural disasters in 2015. Many of the items donated were from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University community. And, it was all done with Peggy in mind.

That goodwill ignited a spark in the political science major, who set up a nonprofit initiative, studied abroad in Australia and interned at the U.S. Department of State.

Grandma would have been proud.

The story behind the name

After living in California for most of her adult life, Peggy Larkin decided to leave the United States.

Despite not knowing how to swim, she spent three months navigating her sailboat "The Black Magic" west to the Marshall Islands, south to Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Fiji and finally Vanuatu.

Vanuatu is a nation consisting of 82 relatively small islands (65 of which are inhabited by humans). The islands are located about 500 miles west of Fiji, and about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia.

Larkin McLay decided to make a difference in his grandmother's name. In December 2015, he started a collection drive at CSB and SJU where students donated school and medical supplies, clothing and toys for the people of Vanuatu.

In memory of his grandmother, who died in 1996, Larkin McLay named it "The Peggy Larkin Initiative."

"It really is a living memory of her life there," he said. "But it's also continuing the good work that she did there and for an area of the world that doesn't get the attention that it really needs."

Plan in action

Once he collected the donations, Larkin McLay created a GoFundMe page and raised $2,000 in one month. Since most of the money was used for shipping costs, Larkin McLay used the remaining cash to purchase rice, flour and tin fish for rural villagers who were recovering from the damages of Cyclone Pam in March 2015 and El Niño, a weather effect that resulted in a drought on the islands following Cyclone Pam.

"A lot of the villager's crops were dried out," Larkin McLay said. "Most of them don't have much access to water and other resources that they would need. But they are still such happy people. Seeing this disaster and how devastated they were, it's sad. But they don't let that affect their way of life."

When visiting the different villages, Larkin McLay spoke to the village chiefs in each area. Because Vanuatu uses Bislama as its national language, Larkin McLay spent a semester teaching himself the language before arriving to the country.

"I downloaded some workbooks and audiotapes and kind of taught myself the language the best I could," he said.

Next stop

After Vanuatu, Larkin McLay traveled to Perth, Australia, to participate in CSB/SJU's study abroad program. After his program ended, Larkin McLay returned to Minnesota and left yet again to intern at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.


During his summer 2016 internship, Larkin McLay worked for the office of Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island Affairs.

"What our office does is work with the embassies that we have abroad and support the U.S. mission that we have in these specific countries," he said.

After traveling to Vanuatu and Australia, Larkin McLay said it felt rewarding to work on these issues from a U.S. perspective.

"I never really planned for any of this, but I believe there's a reason for what I'm doing, and I see the impact one person with an idea in a college town in Minnesota has on others thousands of miles away who need help," he said. "That has always been my drive." 

Future plans

In just three weeks, Larkin McLay made a noticeable impact in Vanuatu.

"I like to think of the Initiative as a first step," he said. "Without constraining to one specific area of disaster relief, we want to identify problems in multiple areas."

Larkin McLay plans to return to Vanuatu within the next year and recently registered the Initiative as a limited liability company (LLC). By doing so, he hopes that his good works will spread to other areas in Vanuatu and lesser developed countries.

"I see us helping along the way and eventually passing responsibilities onto another group in the area that wants to help," he said.

Moving forward, Larkin McLay also hopes to connect CSB/SJU students and alumnae/i to the people of Vanuatu through a type of student sponsorship program.

"One of the biggest ways we can help a country like Vanuatu is through education, and that helps solve many of these issues," he said. "Schooling is very inexpensive there, but they still have struggles being able to pay for it, and an idea I had to assist them is through a type of sponsorship program. This is something I am trying to put together." 

And for Larkin McLay, the opportunities await. He plans on taking the foreign services exam in spring 2017 and attending graduate school for international studies soon after.

"Seeing the love and relationships that we have with one another as Bennies and Johnnies really helps establish my passion for other communities and extending that uniqueness we have here and applying it in other places of the world," he said.