Sharing Worlds, Changing Lives

The Samoan Youth Empowerment Initiative was founded in June of 2012 as a way to allow Samoan students a chance to develop cross-cultural awareness by traveling to the United States. The program seeks to engage the Samoan students in hands on activities and interaction with Americans with the understanding that Americans will gain just as much in terms of the sharing of cultures.

Our mission is to inspire the youth of Samoa to dream, but more importantly, to act. With a focus on sustainability, we are challenging the students to return to Samoa as bold leaders, active individuals and inspirational partners. They will reach out to share their experiences and then move to act on important issues facing their local communities, churches and families. They are the future of Samoa and we can EMPOWER them!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Where We Stand

When we started to organize this program, we had $0.00 dollars. However, I am happy to announce that after just a couple of months we now have over $3,000 U.S. dollars and are nearly halfway to our goal of $6,499.34. We’ve made it this far because of generous individuals, businesses, organizations and churches. Let’s keep working to raise that bar and together we can reach the top! Thank you for your continued support.

Gaining a Stake

One of my goals for the Samoan Youth Empowerment Initiative has been to involve the students and their families in the preparations for the program. With all of them living out in a rural village, my challenge was finding a way that they could best be active participants in the planning and fundraising. These are also families with very limited financial resources, trying to provide for their children while also meeting obligations to their village and church communities.

I first went to the fathers of Saulo, Milo and Neueli and asked if they would be willing to make some of their famous carvings. Their village is one of the few in Samoa that makes the traditional wooden bowls, plates and weapons. I told the fathers that we were having a Trivia Night and would love to raffle off their carvings to help raise money. They were very willing to help and had no trouble providing us with some of their best work which was a huge success for the Trivia Night!

However, I still wanted to ask more of the families and get everyone involved, not just the fathers. That’s when I decided we should send up a street vending stand to sell some favorite Samoan “fast foods” such as vaisalo, which is a tapioca like soup that uses the coconut cream and can be made in a huge pot! I also wanted to sell kokoa araisa, which is rice cooked with cocoa and also uses the coconut cream. I took my ideas to the families and they were excited to help once again. We also decided we would sell fresh coconuts.

As with most things thus far on this program, things began to fall into place. We needed a vehicle to pick up all the coconuts from along the road in the village and then transport them and the big pots of food in to town so I went to Funway Rentals in Apia and asked the owner if he would donate a rental for our use. He was very willing to help and seemed very interested in our program. He gave us a huge pickup truck to use for Friday evening and then return it on Saturday morning.

I had gone to Chan Mow shopping center in town and asked the manager there if we could set up in front of their business on October 13th, which was the Saturday before White Sunday and is typically the busiest shopping day of the year. White Sunday is a day to celebrate the kids of Samoa and families flock to town to buy ice cream, candies and clothes to make the day special. Having our stand in front of Chan Mow would be a sure win situation.

On Friday evening I headed to the village in the rental truck and met the students out on the road to start collecting the coconuts. It wasn’t just the three boys though, but their brothers and cousins who had also come out to help; it had become a whole family event as I was hoping it would. Night soon fell upon the village and we stopped to eat dinner. By 10:30p.m. we were back out in the bush, with one of the boys’ dad climbing coconut trees and the boys and I gathering them to load into the truck.

At 12a.m. we were back at the house but there was no time to sleep. Since we had to leave for town at 5:30a.m. it was time to start husking the coconuts and preparing the fire for the two Samoan foods. Even though we were tired, you could see the fun everyone was having working together through the night. The families had helped by the foods for the vaisalo and kokoa araisa. With everyone working together it all started to come together. Before we knew it, 5:30 had rolled around and it was time to head to town. After loading the trucks and changing out of our smoky clothes, we were on our way to Apia.

The morning foot traffic started off kind of slow but quickly picked up. Everyone became familiar with their sales pitch line they would use when people walked by. The boys’ moms worked at serving the soups and the dads opening the coconuts. We also had a 100 tala gift voucher to a hardware store in town which we were selling raffle tickets for and the boys enjoyed selling tickets for that as well. As long as we kept busy were able to forget the fact that we hadn’t slept all night.

We kept busy all morning as people walked by. Even those who didn’t buy anything took a moment to glance at the signs we had hung briefly describing the program. Some people bought several coconuts, or several raffle tickets. We had plenty of food but ran out of coconuts before the morning was over. We had gone through over 100 coconuts in just a few hours!

The busier we got, the more excited the families became and the fathers came up to me and said that they wanted to do this again and that next time we would make sure we had more coconuts. As we all worked together, you could see that they all felt they had a stake in the program—they all felt as though they were helping to reach our goal.

At 12:30p.m. Chan Mow closed its store for the day and most foot traffic had slowed down since stores clothes early on Saturday. After counting the money, we found we had made $425 tala, about $200 U.S. dollars. However, I realized that what we had accomplished was much more than that dollar amount; we had just found a way to involve the families in a real and meaningful way in a program they will all benefit from in the end.

Collecting coconuts at 11p.m. and loading them into the truck.

Milo's Dad climbs the coconut tree in the dark.

Things getting started at around 12a.m. The palm frond was used to make a basket.

A basket done in 5 minutes and ready to load coconuts into.

Saulo and Neueli's brother husking the coconuts.

Making the vaisalo.

Neueli and Saulo hard at work and Saulo and Milo's moms wait for customers.

They all did a great job.

Peace Corps Volunteer, Nancy Magsig has been a huge help in the fundraising efforts. She assisted us the whole morning with selling food and raffle tickets. Here she is during the drawing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Wings to Fly

When I was young, I was always asked the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” It’s a question that so many kids think about and seem to answer as though anything is possible. I was raised that way, to believe that it was possible to be a teacher, a farmer or a priest, as long as I was willing to work hard enough for it.

In Samoa, however, children are very rarely asked that same question about their future. When I was teaching at the primary school and asked my students what they wanted to do after finishing school, I got blank looks, even after asking them in Samoan. I worked hard during my two years to motivate them to dream larger than they thought was possible.

Recently I asked Saulo, one of the students I am planning on taking back to Michigan in December for the Samoan Youth Empowerment Initiative, what he wanted to do after he finished school in four years. He said he wants to go to serve in the mission for two years with the Mormon Church and then work for Air New Zealand. When he said Air New Zealand, I asked him what he wanted to do for the company and he said be an airplane pilot.

Saulo has always been good in math, often getting the highest test scores for his class in this subject and completing problems faster than me on a number of occasions. When he said he wanted to be a pilot I told him he would do well because he is so strong in math. I told him I use to want to be a pilot when I was his age but I wasn’t very good in math and decided I wouldn’t like to do it for a career.

I asked him why he wanted to be a pilot and he said so that he could travel to other countries and allow his family the chance to travel as well. Although I’m not sure he understands his family won’t be able to just board the plane for free, I was touched by the thoughtfulness of his answer, a 14 year old boy who is thinking about his family and wanting them to have that experience of travel.

The Samoan Youth Empowerment Initiative is about building up these types of dreams, such as Saulo’s dream to be an airline pilot and then giving him and the other students the knowledge and confidence to make it happen. It’s important to dream, but I’ve told them it’s just as important to act.

Can you imagine the dream building that will happen for Saulo when he boards the Boeing 737 on December 15 to travel 7,000 miles to the other side of the world. Imagine the new outlook he’ll have on his future just after that 1 day of travel. To be able to see a pilot first hand, see the plane and feel the thrust of taking off at over 100 mph: that will empower him to build his dream and then we’ll teach him how to act on it.

I invite each of you who have ever dreamed like Saulo, to help us in our fundraising efforts. There is no amount too small, whatever you can offer will make a difference. So many have already rallied behind our efforts and we thank each of you. For those who are interested in contributing, there is a link to PayPal at the top of this blog where I invite you to take a few minutes to fill out the information. Your few minutes could earn Saulo his wings to fly.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Building the Dream Together

Group 1: the first students of the
Samoan Youth Empowerment Initiative
I’ve learned that although we may start projects and programs with our own ideas, plans and ways of doing something, they soon become team efforts which add life and energy to what we originally set out to do. This has certainly been true for the Samoan Youth Empowerment Initiative!

My plans to take three of my former Samoan students back to the United States for a one month cross-cultural experience have become so much more fruitful than I could ever have imagined! I meet with people who give me amazing ideas, who tell a friend who then reaches out to help. Some people know me well, others not at all, very few even know the three boys that plan to travel back to Michigan, yet they all give as though they are family and with an urgency and upbeat attitude that is contagious.
This past weekend we had our first fundraising event here in Samoa—a Trivia Night at the Apia Yacht Club. We filled a room full of generous people who felt a call to give. They came to have fun, yet they came knowing they were helping a cause.

Forming teams of 6 people, they battled against each other on a variety of trivia that stumped them more than once, yet with determination they pressed forward. Although there could only be one winning team, several people won prizes from the raffle drawing which proved to be a great success. Gift cards, food baskets and even a Samoan kava bowl were some the great gifts we had donated, with the kava bowl being carved by a father of one of the students who plans to travel for the program.

We even had a prize for the table that did the worst, a bottle of sea slugs, which some people consider a treat, yet many more consider foul. In my two weeks of traversing the streets of Apia for sponsorship from businesses, I saw people give from their hearts and give what they had.

The bottle of sea slugs is a perfect example. The day of the trivia event I went to the market to purchase the bottle, which normally takes in $30.00 tala for the vendor selling it. However, in bending down beside a women at the market and explaining my program using Samoan, she seemed to realize the value of our mission and wanted to be a part of it. Although she wasn’t able to give as much as the big companies in town did, she gave an equal amount, based on what she could afford. I ended up paying only $7.00 tala for that bottle and thanked her, knowing she had given up a fair amount of her day’s earnings to help our program take another step forward.

This Saturday, the day before White Sunday, which is the busiest shopping day in Samoa, we are having another fundraising event, but this time the students of the program and their families will be taking a more visible role. Together they will be making and selling some Samoan favorites, such as vaisalo, kokoaraisa, as well as niu (coconuts). There will also be raffle tickets on sale for some gift cards to a hardware store in town.

They will be set up in front of Chan Mow, a very busy street corner, where we are hoping people will once again take a moment to give from their hearts and make a difference for Samoa’s youth. But it’s not just Samoa that is giving; those in America are stepping up to act for this cause.

Besides Monsanto Company, a worldwide agricultural conglomerate, making a sizeable donation, my own church has reached out to help, planning to hold bake sales, sloppy-Joe dinners and 50/50 drawings to help us reach our goal to get these Samoan students back to the United States where they will be able to grow in their understanding of the world, and then be challenged to act in it.

In the States, they will be meeting with youth their age to share Samoa and in turn, learning about America. They will be visiting with students with special needs, helping them to become more sensitive to those who require more time, more patience and more assistance. They will be visiting the dentist, where they will have their teeth cleaned for the first time in their lives, and then be challenged to come back to Samoa and remember the importance of good dental health. They will visit with doctors and nurses and learn about a profession which many Samoans only dream about, but which these young students will be encouraged to work for, if that is what they want.

This program is about a group effort, about us working together to build up the youth, to become more aware of ourselves and our role in supporting causes which will better our countries and our world. We don’t live by ourselves in bubbles anymore, we are more interconnected and more outwardly exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking. We can’t look in at ourselves, at our own country or our own villages and towns as if we live there alone. We have to dream for something bigger, and in working together, we’ll be able to accomplish that, for ourselves and for these young Samoans—the future of tomorrow!

Editor’s Note: This dream we are building couldn’t be done without the help of the generous businesses and organizations listed below. Please, I invite you to take a minute to read through the list of all those who have given from their hearts!

American Community (Including program host partners)
Borgess Medical Center, Kalamazoo, Michigan
LOGAN Center, South Bend, Indiana
Central Elementary, White Pigeon, Michigan
St. Joe Valley Dental Clinic, Constantine, Michigan
Monsanto Company, Constantine, Michigan
Ladies of St. Joseph's, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, White Pigeon, Michigan

Samoan Community:
Bluebird Hardware & Lumber
Samoa Builders Supplies
Niu Pharmacy
Lusia’s Lagoon Shale’s
Safua Tours
ACE Hardware
Samoa Business Machines
Apia Traders
La Chic
Apia Pharmacy
Apia Yacht Club
Bistro Tatau
Funway Rentals
TV 3
Radio Polynesia
Samoa Observer

New Zealand Community:
Abodo Wood Ltd.
What Power Crisis Ltd.

Announcing raffle prizes during Trivia Night.

Dave and Karen from Peace Corps Group 83 ran the Trivia Questions for us and did an awesome job! Notice the kava bowl on the table as one of the prizes, which Saulo's dad carved.

Ed Mulitalo, former NFL player for the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions was with us at Trivia Night to show his support! He even won a two night stay to Lusia's in Savai'i.

What a great time to be with friends and support a great cause. We had people from America, Samoa, New Zealand, Japan and Australia there to support us! Thanks to all.

Lights, Camera, Action!

Milo, Saulo and Neueli after their TV interview.
This past weekend Saulo, Milo and Neueli traveled to the capital for an interview at Samoa’s TV 3 station! We were very fortunate to get TV 3’s support for the Samoan Youth Empowerment Initiative, and they have agreed to cover the program from now until it’s completion, which will be next January when the boys return to Samoa to share their experiences of America to the youth of their villages.

When I told the boys they were going to be on TV, I got mixed reactions. Saulo was very hesitant and didn’t seem too thrilled about the idea. Neueli pretended to act as Saulo did, but told me later that he was excited. Milo seemed indifferent.

Regardless, it was the first time on TV for any of them, so I was surprised they weren’t more excited. When I was growing up in Michigan and the local TV station was at the Friday night football games, I would force myself to stay up until 11:20p.m. just to watch to see if there was a glimpse of me from the stands. But for these three kids, they were either holding it all inside or just really didn’t realize it was a great opportunity for our program to be recognized here in Samoa, as well as in American Samoa, some 60 miles away.

As I said, Neueli seemed to be the most excited about the TV interview, so I wasn’t too shocked when I saw him the night before with a brand new haircut. Milo also had gotten a trim for the big occasion. I tried to get them more excited by telling them all of their teachers and friends from school would see them, but then I realized that might be what was tempering some of their excitements down.

On Saturday morning we all made it onto the bus and got to Apia in plenty of time. We were scheduled to meet at TV 3 at 10:30 although we didn’t get started until 11:00. The week before I had met Fuapepe, the women who was going to interview us. She invited us back to the studio and I think the boys got a little more excited when they saw the cameras and set.

I hadn’t gotten all that much sleep the nights leading up to the interview and it had been a rainy and humid morning in Apia so I felt a little sluggish, but still wanted to put my best foot forward for the program so that the public would know more about what we are trying to accomplish, getting these three students back to the United Sates in December for a one month cross cultural experience!

After getting a brief introduction from me about the program (luckily I wasn’t forced to use my Samoan) Fuapepe asked each of the boys a question in Samoan. As I sat there and listened to their answers, I thought about how far they had come from those first days we had met. They really seemed to have a sense of confidence that had grown to be a part of them. I was even especially pleased when Milo called me by my name during his answer, as opposed to “palagi” the Samoan word for “white person” which they still to this day sometimes use to refer to me when talking amongst themselves!
The Samoan language is unique in that it has a less formal spoken language that people use on an everyday basis. This is where all the t’s become k’s, thus being called the k language. But in formal situations, such as during church or village meetings among chiefs, the t language is used as the formal and appropriate, or educated language. Most of the time I only hear the boys speak the k language, so as I sat there listening to them answer their questions, it was interesting to hear them speak in the formal t language with such poise.

One recurring concern that most people have about this program is the timing, in that the boys will most likely be arriving to a snowy and cold Michigan! Even if it’s a balmy 50 degrees on Christmas Day, those kids will still be freezing to death, since they get “cold” when it dips to 70 in their village!! But I tell people we’ll help the boys stay warm by having them shovel the snow!

After about 15 minutes the interview was over and we took a picture together on the set before heading out. I think it’s a day that Saulo, Milo and Neueli will remember for a while; the day they became television stars! We hope to be back again, as TV 3 wants to continue covering the program. We are so grateful for TV 3’s willingness to help us get the word out about our project to the Samoan islands, and hopefully more youth around the region will feel motivated to do something bold, work hard and dream for a goal as Saulo, Milo and Neueli are learning to do.

The boys talking to Fuapepe before the interview began.

After the interview we had time for a picture.