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!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Classroom Visits, a Powerful Experience

After making ulas with Mrs. Schmeling's class!
When organizing for Saulo, Milo and Neueli to make visits to American classrooms, I knew that they would be eye-opening experiences, but I never realized in the beginning how emotionally attached they would become to those they would visit. It allowed great friendships to be made, as well as some old ones to be revisited.

Schools in Samoa have limited resources, and this also translates into limited teaching staff. Currently there is a teacher shortage in Samoa, with some older teachers having come out of retirement in recent years to help alleviate the burdens put on the system.

For the most part, schools are clean and have a basic set of resources. My school, where I taught the boys, provided lined paper notebooks at the beginning of the year, along with pencils and to the older students, pens. Teachers had access to construction paper, glue, scissors, markers and crayons. Although each of these resources were limited, they did provide enough materials to set up a colorful classroom and do projects throughout the school year. Most schools also have some type of library.

However, although these resources were readily available—the libraries included—many teachers didn’t take advantage of utilizing them and thus, the students more often spent their time copying from wrote off of the blackboards. Things have been done this way for many years in Samoa, although good changes are starting to take place as a newer generation of teachers steps to the foreground.

I had gotten in touch with Mrs. Schmeling’s 5th grade class at Central Elementary in White Pigeon, Michigan through my mom who also teaches there. Mrs. Schmeling’s students were welcoming the boys from the beginning, having made a welcome sign to display when we were picked up at the bus stop.

We had a chance to visit the 5th grade class three times, in addition to an afterschool event on evening. Our first visit found us breaking through some anxieties as Milo, Saulo and Neueli adapted to being in an American classroom. Although I mentioned there were basic resources in the schools of Samoa, the American classroom could be a lot to absorb with all of its colors, books, computers and technology. That’s what that first visit was about, getting familiar with the students and the setting.

We partnered Milo, Saulo and Neueli up with their own “buddy” in the beginning to help show them the ropes for the school day. The boys sat in on morning lessons, went out for recess and ate lunch with Mrs. Schmeling’s class. That first visit was spent by the boys sharing pictures and videos with the 5th graders as well as my mom’s kindergarten class. In the afternoon, the boys sat in a circle with the rest of the 5th graders to answer questions about Samoa and ask questions about America. The day finished up with the three of them demonstrating some Samoan dances and getting to listen to some of the 5th grader girls sing and play the guitar to some popular songs.

Later that week, Milo, Saulo and Neueli were invited to go roller skating with the Mrs. Schmeling’s class, along with the 3rd, and 4th graders who were all attending this after-school event. None of the boys had ever been roller skating, so it required some patience on all of their parts as they tried to keep their balance on those four wheels. Their new friends in the 5th grader were great about helping hold their hands as they got the hang of it. By the time the evening of skating ended, all three of them were able to skate with much more confidence and a few less falls! There were some sore muscles the next couple of days but they were so happy they were able to go.

Our second visit was also a huge success! By that time, all the kids knew each other and so it was much more relaxed. Our main project was making candy necklaces, in Samoa it is called an “ula.” Ulas are given in Samoa for special occasions like weddings, funerals, Mother’s and Father’s Day. We had bought a bunch of candy and the boys demonstrated how to roll the candy in clear wrap and then tie it off with string. Although we couldn’t make flower ulas, this was a good second choice in terms of sharing something unique from their culture.

Our final visit to Mrs. Schmeling’s room was on the boys’ last full day in Michigan. We stopped by to say a “quick” goodbye and ended up staying a couple of hours. Mrs. Schmeling and I were able to see it was going to be hard for these new friends to say goodbye. As the end of the school day drew near, it was so special to see the hugs, handshakes and even tears as the boys said goodbye to their new friends in the 5th grade. I think the boys felt a bit like movie stars with kids coming up to ask for their autographs. It was hard for them to say goodbye, but we left knowing we would try to stay in touch through letters and cards.

At lunch with the 5th grade.

Recess time with new friends!

Milo, Saulo and Neueli talking about Samoa with Mrs. Schmeling's class.

More time with friends.

Taking a break from roller skating.

Neueli got the hang of it pretty fast.

Milo tried pulling me down with him a couple of times but I managed to stay up.

Saulo demonstrating how to make an ula.

Neueli lending a helping hand.

Milo and friends.

Neueli signing stuff for his new friends before saying goodbye.

Mrs. Schmeling's class wanted some photos to remember their friends by.

New friends--good friends!!

Hard to say goodbye.

Milo saying his final goodbyes to the 5th grade.

Neueli says goodbye.


My friend Katy, who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa was teaching 6th grade two years ago while I was still teaching in Samoa. At the time, I reached out to her and asked if we could start a pen pal program between her class in South Bend and my 7th and 8th grade students in Samoa. And so a friendship formed between our two classes and letters were sent, along with other cards and projects. This year as I prepared to bring the boys back, Katy, who is now teaching 8th grade, remembered that her students this year were pen pals with the boys two years ago!! In fact, some of her students still had the letters that had been sent to them by my students, one of whom was pen pals with Neueli. So it was a no brainer that these old friends had to meet up.

Katy arranged a time after school in mid-January when a handful of her students were able to stay after class and meet with Saulo, Milo and Neueli. We took souvenir items to show, along with new pictures and videos. As was the case with the 5th grade, there was some shyness in the beginning, but they became more comfortable, especially when we split into small groups to do question and answers. The afternoon finished up with Katy’s class showing the boys around their school. It was another great day where the two cultures were exchanged through discussion and friendship!

Neueli fielding questions in a small group setting.

Saulo an the guys talking culture points.

Milo not only got asked questions but got to ask some himself.

Milo's old pen pal from 2011.

A visit to Katy's library.

We're hoping they take Katy's good advice!


The guys perhaps felt most confident when they visited the Young 5’s class at Central Elementary. They could let down all insecurities in front of the little kids and didn’t feel at all intimidated due to their difference in age.

We were warmly greeted by the Young 5’s teacher, Mrs. Kaz who had been so excited to meet the boys! She invited us in to have a seat and then asked her class to show off some of their knowledge about the alphabet, numbers, months of the year and other things they had been learning. Mrs. Kaz went around the room with great enthusiasm, holding up letter cards to quiz the kids and then haphazardly throwing them into the air. Milo, Saulo and Neueli started to laugh out loud and I knew that this was a great example for them to see a teacher who was using such creative ways of learning and doing it so well with a group of young learners! There was a commercial on T.V. a few days after our visit to the Young 5’s room and it had someone throwing paper into the air in a similar way as Mrs. Kaz had done and I heard the boys comment on how it reminded them of the Young 5’s visit! The boys finished things up by sharing their Samoan alphabet with the American students!

Listening to the Young 5's review.

Free Choice time always a favorite among Young 5's kids.

On the day we stopped to say goodbye, we got a funny picture together!


We were also fortunate to meet with the other 5th grade block at Central Elementary where Mrs. Demeyer’s kids were ready with a ton of good questions for the boys. Milo, Saulo and Neueli sat in the front of the room and answered questions about everything from animals in Samoa to what they want to do for a career someday? Some answers were given by the boys drawing a diagram on the board to help illustrate a particular idea.

Great questions 5th grade!


After the boys performed their traditional Samoan dance for the 5th grade, word spread to the Kindergarteners in my mom’s class. The boys stopped by to visit with the kids and do the dance, which held everyone’s attention well. They also enjoyed looking at the old traditional Samoan weapons, bowls and money. There are now Kindergarteners who can locate Samoa on a globe—something I couldn’t do myself until four years ago!

More questions.

Kids watching the dance.

Saulo playing teacher and telling the line to move.

Neueli saying goodbye to the kids from Kindergarten.

Group photo with Kindergarten.


As the boys’ time in Michigan came to a close last week I asked them what some of their best moments were and they all felt strongly about their friendships made through the classroom visits. Since school normally means homework, long hours and teachers talking, I wasn’t expecting the boys to enjoy the classroom visits as much as they did, but then when I stepped back and looked at it differently, I realized it wasn’t school they were growing attached to, but the individual friends their age who welcomed them so warmly into their school, culture and country. Samoans take a lot of pride in being great hosts and welcoming in strangers, and yes, all that is true! However, I am happy to see that the American youth are able to run the race too and leave some deep impressions on three boys from the South Pacific! Many thanks for that! Many thanks for showing my students how fortunate we have been to attend our studies in an American school system where all are respected and listened to and creativity and innovation are encouraged and fostered!

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