A different kind of love story
What happens when you put a successful businessman together with a community organization that ministers to the least fortunate among us, and the golden threads binding the two happens to be the community’s newspaper?
You get, in the words of long time resident and community volunteer Cecilia Solofa, “a different kind of love story.”
The businessman is Julian Keeling, the owner of Consolidated International Inc (CII), an international freight forwarding company with offices here and throughout the Pacific, and a company which has been the source of several thoughtful donations to the Territory, notably to the Boys and Girls Club, Hope House and the Samoa Bowl athletes.
Keeling had witnessed the devastation in the territory following the tsunami and vowed to help long after the news of the tragedy died down. He said via email: “Here I am living in America, with all the luxuries we take for granted up here. I see a part of America in American Samoa where a teacher can literally run out of chalk and construction paper and a student’s family cannot afford to buy a new composition book. This hurts me, but it also drives me to stay the course. The stuff I like doing most are the grass roots things where I might just be able to make a small difference. CII is on the “rock” for many, many years to come. We will continue to give back to the community. Above all, I derive so much joy just being part of the American Samoan community, so in many ways I am the one who feels so grateful.”
It was in that spirit that Keeling asked Samoa News to find a worthy cause for his latest donation. Filling several large bags, the gift included large quantities of school supplies such as backpacks, notebooks, rulers, pens, pencils, scissors and children’s clothing.
Enter the Mary Elizabeth Care Ministry and Solofa, who has quietly gone about working in this ministry which she helped to initiate eight years ago.
When she came to Samoa News to receive the donation from Keeling and CII, she expressed deep gratitude. And she had a story to tell about the name of her ministry.
She said it was to emulate the loving kindness exhibited by Mary, the mother of Jesus when she left her home and traveled the dusty roads of Judea to be with her cousin Elizabeth, who was soon to deliver a son (who would be John the Baptist). So it was only natural for Solofa to use the names of Mary and Elizabeth in her ministry, because they represented for her a spirit of sisterly love and support that includes “being there” for someone.
She said it all began with a grieving family who had few people to care for them when their mother died. “There was no one there for them, no one to stand with them, hold their hands, no other family present.” No one except Cecilia Solofa and a few of her children and friends.
Said Solofa of that experience, which took place many years ago in Tutuila, “We began to see that this happens more often than we realize. There was a need for this ministry of ‘presence’ — just by being there, we were able to help them, in a small way, to get through their sorrow. They knew that someone else cared.”
Solofa explained that she had been raised in Savai’i and New Zealand, in a family that gave shelter to needy families and abused women.
“That’s how I grew up” she said. “That’s my background, and I want to carry on this tradition of aiding people who are less fortunate than I am.” She recalled of her childhood, “We used to take the old folks down to the pool, bathe them and clothe them”. This was the example set for her.
“We did it quietly, we didn’t need recognition. It was what we loved to do.”
When Keeling contacted Samoa News for the name of a worthy organization to which he could donate, the newspaper directed him to Solofa and her ministry.
ANSWERING THE CALL
Mary Elizabeth Care Ministry was formally begun by Solofa with the help of a small group of dedicated women: Litara Alaimo, Monica Miller, Rita Hall and Teuila Love. Solofa said they began the ministry to aid grieving families, who did not have community support to help them through their time of sorrow.
Through their connections at Fatu o Aiga Cathedral parish, the group became aware that there was a greater need to reach out to those families than they had realized.
Their efforts grew to include others besides grieving families. According to Solofa, it became apparent that there were many people on the island living in very difficult financial circumstances with sub-standard housing and many small children to care for.
Due to unemployment and lack of transportation, many of these same people were unable to afford hospital care and medicine. As a result, Solofa, who is a New Zealand trained Registered Nurse, found many suffering from chronic illness.
The poverty which Solofa has seen “right here in American Samoa” caused her to expand the ministry further to those affected by domestic violence problems, and families with a parent or breadwinner in prison.
She told Samoa News, “these names have come to us by referral; they are not people who are asking for help, and we wish to respect their dignity.” She told Samoa News that the families are grateful for whatever comes their way.
Solofa said she is now collecting bedding, blankets, pillows, comforters and kitchenware to improve the standard of living for these residents, “some of whom do not even have cement floors.”
She also collects scraps of material to stitch together pillow slips, sheets, and lava lavas.
“We work closely with the families. We don’t just drop off these goods. We check to see their progress, what other needs they have, and how else we can help them. We’ve found jobs for people, such as gardening and cleaning, and want to make sure they are moving forward and not sliding backwards.”
“I want them to know that people here do care about them.” she says.
The Mary Elizabeth ministry has also helped victims of house fires.
She explained, “Red Cross helps them right away, but there is only so much they can do.” She said her little group has distributed clothing, kitchenware and personal items such as toiletries to people who have lost everything. They also let people know what is available in the community, such as help from WIC, TAOA and food stamps. “Many are unaware of help, or are afraid to seek it,” she said.
Solofa said she knew of Julian Keeling and CII because of the company’s donation to Hope House. She relayed the story of CII staff going to California to purchase the contents of a day care that was closing down. Free of charge, CII shipped the goods to American Samoa and donated them to Hope House, through her ministry.
She said that her children are strong supporters of this ministry, as well as Ace Hardware, who has been quietly and generously helping out.
So as not to mislead anyone, Solofa stated, “This is not a 501(c)3 organization. It has nothing to do with taxes or deductions. It is simply a group of family and friends who want to help others in this community.”
Solofa notes that they do not collect cash donations, however, when there is a need to purchase food and medicine, Solofa gathers together clothing and other donations, holds a yard sale, and with that money purchases necessities for these families. Phone cards, debit meters and water bills have been paid in this way, she said.
Anyone who wishes to donate to the Mary Elizabeth Care Ministry can contact Solofa at 258-5055. Monica Miller at KHJ Radio can also be contacted by anyone wishing to help.