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!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Making a Splash!

I contacted Splash Universe, an indoor waterpark in Northern Indiana about the possibility of a free one day pass to their facility for the boys and wasn’t sure if I would get a response. It wasn’t a day later and they contacted me saying they would be happy to meet my request, but that they would like to make it a two day pass to the park and a free overnight stay in their hotel!!! I was blown away and since neither Saulo, Milo or Neueli had gone to a water park or hotel before, I knew it would be a fun adventure for them.

We checked in on a Friday afternoon and the boys spent over 4 hours in the waterpark, going down the slides, in the lazy river and getting thousands of gallons of water dumped on them from the gigantic bucket that filled every few minutes!

I had been working them pretty hard with a busy schedule for a few weeks so this was a nice chance for them to relax and just be teenagers!

The big bucket soaking those below!

Neueli after having come down the water slide.

Saulo enjoying the slides.

Milo enjoying the hotel room! The boys got to sleep in bunk beds!

Finding Samoa in Indiana!

After Sunday Toanai at George & Kathy's
The more time that passes, the more time I have to reflect on how many people were involved in making this program a success. I plan to create a flow chart from one end of the spectrum to the other that shows how many people become connected as a “family” in this amazing experience.

One of the amazing connections led us to two great Samoan families who live in Northern Indiana! Through a family friend, we met Don and Dawn. Dawn is from Samoa and still has many family ties to the country. Last year they both were so excited to hear that Saulo, Milo and Neueli were going to be visiting in the area. They extended a warm invitation right away, asking that we come over for a Samoan toanai (big Sunday feast). We met in mid-January with great excitement! By this point the boys were missing home and to have an opportunity to speak with someone in their native tongue—my Samoan wasn’t cutting it—was a big deal. We were also all missing Samoan food at that point.

However, it wasn’t just Don & Dawn’s family, but another family they know from nearby, George, Kathy and their family. George is from Samoa and met Kathy during her time in American Samoa. They met us at Don & Dawns and the huge Samoan reunion commenced.
When we walked in the door and people started speaking to me in Samoan, I felt this happiness come over me, making me feel like I was back in that country I love so much. That’s when I realized it must have been even more amazing for the boys to be able to speak and hear their own language.

Dawn had prepared a huge Samoan feast with American dishes thrown in too. I never had thought it would be possible to fix some of the dishes that she did here in the States, but it was all amazing. Just as in Samoa, the adults all received their food first and then the kids followed behind. It was a full house and a happy house!

We shared pictures, played cards and watched T.V. Saulo, Milo and Neueli walked around the entire time with huge smiles on their faces. George and Kathy have a large family with lots of teenagers so the boys felt right at home with people their age.
The evening finished up with George and Kathy inviting us over to their house the following Sunday! The boys were very excited to hear this and looked forward to it all week. The following Sunday we did it again at George and Kathy’s and Don and Dawn drove over to join us as well.

There was another huge Samoan feast, this time Kathy having worked mostly in the kitchen. There were games of pool going on and video games. George and Kathy had a bunch of their family over as well so it made for a packed house with lots of laughs and good times.

Before we left, I asked George, Kathy and their family to give some words of wisdom to the boys about how important it is to work hard and not give up on your dreams George is a perfect example of someone who worked hard and decided he wanted something and then worked for it. George grew up in Samoa but then he moved to American Samoa and eventually to the States.

I also asked George’s kids to give words of encouragement to the boys about staying in school, and staying dedicated to their studies. Each of George’s kids said such inspiring words and really spoke from their hearts about what it takes to succeed. I knew the boys were listening and I do believe they will remember what they were told for a long time to come.

Samoan food prepared in Indiana!!

Hanging out and speaking Samoan!

Great friends!

George and Kathy's family giving words of wisdom to the boys.

Monday, February 4, 2013


Neueli, Milo and Saulo in the Windy City!
Luckily for the boys, I happen to live near one of the great American cities: Chicago! Although we flew into O’Hare on our arrival, that was early in the morning and after they were all facing sleep deprivation. They ended up sleeping the whole ride home and missing out on the sights. Therefore, I knew a trip to Chicago was a must do for our schedule. We actually made two trips to Chicago, the first to the Museum of Science and Industry and the second being to actual down town on Michigan Avenue.

On both trips we took the South Shore Train that leaves from South Bend, Indiana. We went to the museum in early January with my uncle and his friend. It was a great educational experience for the boys, even if they couldn’t read about everything they saw, the most important thing was that they saw it!

Our second trip was in the middle of the month and we headed to the last stop the train makes near Michigan Ave. This was their first time seeing the skyscrapers up close and so as soon as we walked to street level, their heads immediately looked straight up. We headed for the John Hancock Building where we got on the elevator to the 95th floor. We went to the lounge there and bought four Pepsi drinks for $22.00, which was still cheaper than the $27.00 admission to the observatory a few floors up—and we still had an amazing view of the city and the lake.

As we walked to the glass windows, I could hear the boys gasping at the vastness and the height at which we were standing. It still impresses me and I’ve been to the top of tall buildings my whole life! We had just been to Lake Michigan the week before so I explained to them that they were looking at the other side of that same lake. It was a true moment of culture shock, these three young men from a tiny village on a tiny island in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean were looking at this mass of human creation that seemed to go on forever. It was one of the coolest parts of the trip for me, in terms of watching their expressions.

We headed back down the elevator about 40 minutes later and continued to mingle along Michigan Avenue for the rest of the afternoon. We stopped by the Apple Store to warm up for a few minutes and ended up staying for an hour as all four of us were captivated by the i-pads! A similar story played out at the Lego Store where we were just going to make a quick pass through, but then started building with the interactive portion of the store where you could build your own creations. This caused us to take a later train back to South Bend, but I figured it was worth it if it stretched their minds to create and think in ways they hadn’t before in their own country.

It ended up being a great day, and other than the fare for the train, a very inexpensive day! There is a teenage boy in their village who is called Chicago, so I’m guessing whenever they see him in the future, their minds will have a whole new picture related to their experience that day.

Saulo and Milo enjoying the city life!

Saulo and the city of Chicago behind him.

Neueli's first time to a 95th floor of anything!

Milo taking in the sights.

I think Saulo sat like this for 3 mintues...just looking.

Group picture.

They were impressed by the beach too.

Looking up at where they had come from...the John Hancock Building

This window washer caught their attention! They asked what he was doing.

The boys were faster with the i-pad technology than I was!

Hanging out at the Apple Store.

John Hancock

I spelled each of the boys' names for my creations at the Lego Store!

Milo building.

Final creation.

The islands are always on our mind.

Looking over the Chicago River before heading to the train.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Go Irish!
During my three years in Samoa, one of the most visible decorations in my house was a large ND flag. I remember the early days when Saulo, Milo and Neueli would come over to visit and ask what that flag was all about. My uncle would send newspaper clippings following each home football game in the fall, so the boys got to know Notre Dame football through pictures, my stories of being in the band and other items such as hats, notebooks and t-shirts.

Needless to say, when they arrived in the States for their visit, I felt they were already Notre Dame fans in their hearts and that made our visits to campus so much more exciting. They were finally able to identify buildings and places to the pictures they had seen.

My sister Jenny, our friend Katy and I first took the boys on a tour around campus at the end of the year. We started at the bookstore and made our way to the Basilica, and then over to the Grotto, Golden Dome and finally a ride up the elevator at the Hesburgh Library for a view from the 13th floor. The boys were impressed by the size of campus and also by the friendliness of the squirrels. Since there are no squirrels in Samoa, they were very fascinated by the furry animals and tried calling them over every time they saw one in a tree or running across a quad.

Our second visit to campus was amazing! We went to the Vigil Mass at the Basilica on Saturday, January 19th and then met Fr. Jim Gallagher from the Congregation of Holy Cross. Fr. Jim was meeting us to take the boys and I to dinner and then to the men’s basketball game against Rutgers. We walked over to Five Guys for some delicious hamburgers and fries before heading over to the basketball arena (with a brief stopover at the hockey arena to get a glimpse of a game that was already in progress).

We had amazing seats for the basketball game, situated in the lower arena. When we walked in I could see the guys getting excited, especially with the jumbotron, band and team all adding to the atmosphere. Basketball is a sport that isn’t played in Samoa, so everything the guys experienced was new. Even though I don’t consider myself an expert in the sport, I still had a fun time explaining the basics to them throughout the game.

It didn’t take long at all and they felt right at home, cheering and yelling “Go Irish!” We were all thrilled when the Irish pulled out a narrow victory in the end against Rutgers. As we left our seating, we walked along the edge of the court where we were able to get the boys’ picture with the leprechaun. We said our goodbyes to Fr. Jim who had been an amazing host and then headed for the car. On the way home the boys were listening to my Notre Dame Band CD and talking about the game. It was a great way to end their visit to Notre Dame and now they will forever be fans of the Fighting Irish!

In front of the Golden Dome.

Meeting Katy at the bookstore before our walk around campus.

Outside the Basilica.

Hesburgh Library

The game!

Thanks Fr. Jim for hosting us!

After the game.