Students who lost parents in tsunami receive ed stipend
More than a dozen students who lost a parent in the 2009 tsunami have been presented with or will receive a $200 “education sponsorship” check, which they will receive every year until they turn 25 — from the One Global Family Foundation, working with the GiveLife Foundation and supported by the Samoa Victims Support Group, which has a chapter in the territory.
A handful of the sponsorship checks were distributed Saturday during the tsunami memorial service, organized by the Rotary Club of Pago Pago and Hawaiian Airlines. The ceremony was held at the Tsunami Picnic Shelter, which includes a monument listing the names of the 34 victims who died in the Sept. 29, 2009 tsunami.
There are two picnic shelters located at Lyons Park, and the monument is erected in front of one of the shelters. This is a project of the Rotary Club and Hawaiian Airlines to honor and remember the victims.
One Global Family and GiveLife Foundation’s executive and co-founder Laura Lafoia Ava-Tesimale told the audience she’s grateful for the opportunity to distribute sponsorship checks that will “continue annually as long as the children are in school.”
“We want to challenge you to push yourselves. If you’re a C student or a B student, push higher. Go to college, go to a university, go to a trade school,” she told the students present at the ceremony. “As long as you’re in school, as long as we get a report card, the sponsorship will continue, until you turn 25 and you’re able to be self sustainable.”
“I know that $200 is not much, but this is the beginning and we want to continue this program, not only for the children of Samoa but other pacific islands and it’s something that we do around the world...” she said, adding she’ll be working to locate at least 10 to 12 more students, whose parents were taken during the tsunami to give them checks.
The youngest recipient who was presented a check is four-year-old Malakai, whose mother Sabrina Seva’aetasi was among the tsunami victims. Ava-Tesimale told Malakai the money can be used to buy his school uniforms and books to “help him with his education.”
Sabrina’s father, Fautanu Suitupu Seva’aetasi told the audience in an emotional voice, slowly wiping away tears, that he has never been able to speak publicly about his daughter until Saturday's ceremony.
“During her funeral, they wanted someone to bear testimony about the way she was and I couldn’t,” he said — pausing in between words. “Her mom did everything, [because] I just couldn’t speak about her.”
During last year’s memorial at Lyons Park, “I wanted to say something but I couldn’t. I guess now, I’m happy, it’s a good load off my shoulder, and I could speak about her,” he said and expressed thanks to the foundations, Hawaiian Air and Rotary.
Also a recipient of the check is the Tanielu family, who Ava-Tesimale first met in January 2010. The husband, Pita Tanielu “was swept away by the wave and I saw that she (the wife) had three children — a son and two daughters — very young,” said Ava-Tesimale.
Mrs. Tanielu was working in a daycare center, earning only $200 a month and rent was also $200.
“Simple math — $200 is her rent and $200 is her income. What is for food?” Ava-Tesimale said, and paused wiping away tears before continuing in a quivering voice. “What is for her children’s education? And I pray to God, that someway somehow, we would find a project to be able to reach out to help families like her’s (Mrs. Tanielu) affected by the tsunami.”
The idea to help a child, who lost a parent and is now cared for by another parent, a grandparent or relatives was formed, and the idea of “education sponsorship” was born “to help alleviate the financial burden and ensure that Mrs. Tanielu’s children have an education, because... knowledge is power,” Ava-Tesimale said. “Education is the key to eradicating poverty and many ignorances in the world.”
Another check recipient was Gabby Woo, who lost her sister Pu-Hee and her mother Mija in the tsunami. A cousin told the audience that Gabby didn’t talk to anyone during the two years following the tsunami except for an 8-year old relative, who has moved to New Zealand.
Ellen Lee who lost her father in the tsunami was another recipient. Ava-Tesimale explained that Ellen has two other siblings attending college in California and normally, the student must be on island to qualify for the sponsorship checks.
“But I spoke to the CEO of the foundation, his name is “Le Atua (God)”, who “instructed me to also award $200 to the two girls in California, which is also where I live,” she said.
A one-time monetary check was presented to the parents of 21-year old Helen Seui, who also died in the tsunami. Helen’s parents are in the process of adopting a two-year old daughter who will be named after their beloved Helen, said Ava-Tesimale, adding the money is a “one time gift to help with the adoption process.”
At the beginning of the 90-minute ceremony, Rotary Club president Dennis Wellborn said the ceremony is not only to remember our loved ones whose lives were taken four years ago, but it is also a ceremony of healing.
Hawaiian Airlines local station manager Mitzie Semo said on behalf of the airline, “There is never an easy time to go through something like this, but we can all work through things together.”
Part of the ceremony included a moment of silence for the victims and the reading of their names.
“Today is about healing,” Rev. Iasepi Ulu of the CCCAS Fagatogo told the gathering. “Though we come together as strangers, we trust the spirt of the Lord is with us.”
He said, “Though some of us are still trying to make sense of... the sudden loss, we are thankful, as the sun sets, the dawning of a new day brings hope, brings life, and peace to us all.”
He told the audience that being a resilient community, “means using your energy productively to move ahead in the face of adversity.”
Human and Social Services Department (DHSS) director Taeaoafua Dr. Meki Solomona represented the government and said “this is one part of life that is hard to accept, because when a loved one is taken, it’s difficult to accept.”
Before the September 2009 earthquake and tsunami, Taeaoafua said in the territory, “we had a nonchalant attitude about these natural disasters.”
He said he knew some of the tsunami victims from his home-village of Leone and recalled that when the ‘village aumaga’ told the village that the “tsunami was coming,” some of them were unconcerned, saying to the aumaga “you have small faith”.
To the families of the tsunami victims — “be brave,” he said, adding that “days like this are not easy. Our loved ones have moved on to a better place, but they are not forgotten. They will never be forgotten.”
Taeaoafua brought with him a special message from Gov. Lolo Moliga and Lt. Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga, expressing their condolences to the families and for them to remain “strong and be brave.”
Before offering the closing prayer, Rev. Ulu, who earlier in the program received a monetary gift from Ava-Tesimale, returned the gift, saying he believes there are many others who faced tragedy from the tsunami who could use the money more than him.
He said he was returning it as a gift from himself, the CCCAS-Fagatogo and other special guests who attended the ceremony. He blessed the foundations as well as Rotary and Hawaiian Airlines for their commitment to the community, especially in remembrance of those who died four years ago.
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