Redefining service in a spirit of kindness and empowerment

Story and slideshow by HANNAH CHRISTENSEN

Pacific Islanders (PI) believe that what is best for the village is best for the individual. This value system instills a spirit of empathy, generosity and kindness. This is particularly evident in the types of service we see from local members of the PI community. These individuals redefine service through the work that they do as a way of life.

Puna Fatanitavake is a former teacher at Mana Academy Charter School, where she enjoyed teaching second graders. Previously she taught at Liahona High School in Tonga. Fatanitavake moved to Utah in 2015 with two young children and a third on the way to be closer to her mother and pursue more education.

Because of her service to her students, religion and family, Fatanitavake feels that her life is blessed. “Serving helps me be the strong woman I am right now. The love I had for these kids and the good I could do for them, I didn’t expect anything in return because I knew that God would bless me,” she said.

Fatanitavake also explained how every decision she has ever made was for others — the people in her Tongan village, her children, her mother, her former students and current community. She participates in local service through her religion which allows her to serve while also educating and empowering children on how they can be successful and follow their dreams like she is currently doing by attending LDS Business College.

Ulysses Tongaonevai has also dedicated his career to serving youth in his community. Tongaonevai is a conduct hearing officer for The Office of the Dean of Students at the University of Utah where he also instructs courses for PI students as an adjunct professor. Before working at the university, Tongaonevai worked for local government with youth from at-risk homes.

“I’m here to advocate for these individuals or groups,” he explained. “I’ve done things in the community from cultural awareness, higher ed awareness, I’ve created programs to help young people graduate high school and connect with resources.”

Tongaonevai grew up in the inland empire of Southern California in a single-parent household and did not always know where to turn for help. “Because of where I’ve been and what I’ve experienced, I feel like I need to give back because I’ve been given much,” he said.

One of these programs that Tongaonevai created with his wife, Kalo, is called Teine Malohi, a competitive fast pitch softball program for PI girls. They chose this name because “Teine” is Samoan for “girl” and “Malohi” is Tongan for “strong.”

This girl power program was founded in 2016 and has been sponsored by Royal Outreach, West High School Softball, Uplift Foundation Inc. and the University of Utah Neighborhood Partners. They practice and hold events for the teams at The Sorenson Unity Center in Salt Lake City.

Teine Malohi softball has participants from all over the Salt Lake Valley, including: West Valley, Glendale, Poplar Grove, Rose Park, Herriman, West Jordan, South Jordan, Murray, Taylorsville, Salt Lake City, Bountiful, North Salt Lake and Centerville. There are 53 girls total who participate in three separate age-grouped teams ranging from age 8-14.

Teine Malohi provides an opportunity to be physically active while interacting with the community. It also focuses on affordability (scholarships and equipment), player development, academics, culture, empowerment, student-athlete experiences and college prep.

“We also include a community aspect, not only just within the Pacific islander community, but we encourage the players to do some type of voluntary service in the neighborhoods that they live in, and for them to also connect to their legislative representatives,” Tongaonevai said.

With the goal of empowering young women, the Tongaonevais have been able to create this thriving program that teaches young women from all over the Salt Lake Valley how they can serve their communities. “When I first went to school, I didn’t have the understanding of those resources or how to look for them, I didn’t know they existed,” Tongaonevai recalled. As a result, he has spent his entire adulthood advocating for youth and connecting them to resources.

The PI view is that we are all connected and so it’s important that everyone helps each other to find happiness and success. Community activist Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou co-founded an organization called Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR). “All of our goals encompass helping, educating and empowering,” Feltch-Malohifo’ou said. PIK2AR focuses on economics, cultural preservation and domestic violence.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou seeks to provide services for people of PI background because of her childhood, where she felt disconnected from her roots. By providing knowledge, connection and empowerment to the community, Feltch-Malohifo’ou is able to help orchestrate support groups, a business alliance and cultural community events.

Fatanitavake, Tongaonevai and Feltch-Malohifo’ou each described service as part of everyday life. They don’t separate service into a task to accomplish, or some way to balance the scales. Service is organic, it is a way of life.

These Utahn Pacific Islander leaders each seek not only to serve, but to empower others. Empowering others teaches them to take control of their lives, enabling them to be their best selves. This is the Pacific Island way, believing that we are all in this journey together and the success of one, is the success of all.

 

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