Thursday, December 12, 2013

Cyclone Evan: One Year Later



One year ago today, December 13, 2012 in Samoa—Dec. 12 in the U.S.—my faith and endurance was about to be tested in what would prove the most challenging week of my nearly three years in Samoa. At this time last year, there was a cyclone bearing down on that remote Pacific island, yet few anticipated the strength it was approaching with.

The day began in my former Peace Corps village where I had stayed the night with a very dear family; I had been at Saulo’s house. It was a Thursday morning and the next day, Saulo, Neueli, and Milo, were to head back to the United States with me to begin their Samoan Youth Empowerment Initiative. It had been months in the planning and excitement levels were at their peak.

Heading into town that Thursday morning, the wind and rain were increasing with strength. I was traveling into town with all of the boys’ parents to take care of some last minute paperwork before the boys’ trip the U.S. But when I left, I never knew it would be the last time I would see my village as the “normal” I had always known. The next time I would return, Milo’s house would be completely destroyed and Saulo’s house would be without a roof. The trees would be stripped bare of their leaves and the coconut palms bare of their branches. However, what I would discover was that although these physical things would change, the faith of my friends and families there in the village would only increase and grow stronger; they would not be damaged by a Category 3 Tropical Cyclone, but instead they would grow in patience, endurance and trust in God.

In the capital of Apia that afternoon, I tried to gather details about our upcoming international flight the next day, while also trying to remain optimistic that our plans would not be changed. I completed the paperwork with the boys’ parents and they asked me if I wanted to go back to the village with them. I will forever wonder if I made the right decision, but in the end, I decided to go to my house on the western side of the island because it would give me easier access to the capital in order to monitor our travel plans. They got in the van and headed back to their village and I prayed they would be safe.

Over my three years in Samoa, I had done my fair share of hitchhiking, but never before while a cyclone was hitting the islands. Nonetheless, that was the position I found myself in as the bus service was very limited, taking me only half the distance to my house. I wanted to get to my house to make sure my things were secure. I trusted that the boys and their families were safe back in my former Peace Corps village.

Arriving home just before the worst of the cyclone hit, I found my kitchen had been taking a soaking as the wind hurled rain through the slat windows. My ceiling was leaking, and power had gone out, but I was safe. I rode the storm out over the next several hours, gaining very little sleep during a night that never seemed to end as rouge bands of the storm seemed to linger long after the worst of the storm had hit.

That night I used my laptop to charge my cell phone and used my small FM radio to receive updates from the stations in town. When one station ran out of fuel for their generators, I turned to another station and found myself listening to Radio Australia, as even they reported on what would turn out to be the worst cyclone to hit Samoa since the early 1990’s.

That night, I wondered if the families in my Peace Corps village were safe. All I wanted to do was get back out there to be with them and see if they were ok. Somehow, I finally was able to fall asleep, but the next morning would bring all kinds of challenges. December 14th would become a day of waiting and worrying, while at the same time a day of prayer and trust…

(Please check in tomorrow as I write the 2nd of this three part anniversary remembrance blog)


The heavy rains and winds were strong, but were even more severe on the eastern side of Upolu island near my Peace Corps village.


In Apia on Dec. 13th, a few hours before the worst of Cyclone Evan arrived.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Happy White Sunday, 2013!

Kids in my village, White Sunday, 2011
White Sunday is a great day of celebration for the youth of Samoa! You can read about some of the traditions in THIS FORMER POST by Peace Corps Volunteer, Matt, from Group 81 who kept an amazing blog during his service in Samoa!

A large part of White Sunday are the preparations which begin weeks in advance as Pastors begin rehearsing songs, dances and prayers that the kids will present for the big day. Families go through many preparations as well, buying new clothes for the kids to wear on Sunday, and shopping for groceries for the big toana'i (Sunday feast) which happens after church. Ice cream, which is normally for only special occasions is also served for many families!

Sunday mornings involve getting the kids ready for their big day of prayers and songs at church, as you can see one of the families in my Peace Corps village preparing HERE before heading to church.

After celebrating four White Sundays in Samoa, my thoughts are with the kids of that great country on their special day! Although I am not able to be there with them this year, they have been in my prayers today!

As the celebrations begin once again for yet another White Sunday, I am thinking of the kids in Samoa who work so hard throughout the year by helping their family, church and village. The youth of Samoa are an integral part of the rich culture of that country and its future. May all of them have a wonderful day and enjoy the recognition and love they receive from their families and communities on this White Sunday!

First White Sunday in Samoa, 2009, with Emilie and Jenny, both Group 82. Standing in front of the old Catholic Cathedral on Beach Road.

White Sunday in my village, 2010. The kids performing their songs and dances.

White Sunday, 2011.

Milo and I on White Sunday, 2011.

Mareta and Ickle, 2011.

Saulo and I before Church on White Sunday, 2012

Saulo and his family, 2012


White Sunday 2012, after Mass at the Catholic Church.

The toana'i feast, 2012.

Even on a day that celebrated the kids, Ickle couldn't catch a break, being asked to fan the flies away while I ate my meal, 2012.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Klinger Lake, We'll Miss You!

Places we spend time with family often take on new and deeper meanings than what they actually are. A special gathering place can see multiple generations come and go and lead to so many unforgettable memories. This has been the case for my family.

2013
On November 19, 1954, my grandparents bought a house on Klinger Lake in Michigan and since that time, it has seen five generations gather there to celebrate holidays, birthdays, graduations and so much more! They purchased it after the difficult years of the War and for them, it was a slice of their American Dream. It was a modest house that would grow over the years—both in size and in meaning. Today, October 3, 2013 that house is being sold. After nearly 59 years, the time has come to let it go. Grandpa and Grandma have passed from this Earth and we are left with their wonderful memories and the memories of their home.

Circa 1954
Their home became a special place to each of us in our own ways. For my mom, aunts and uncles it was the house they grew up in, the place they learned values, hard work, and compromise. Every time we gathered we were sure to hear a story about the old days. There was the time my mom and aunts sent their little brother (my uncle) around the lake to sell pot holders, trying to make a quick buck. There were stories of “Little Grandma” climbing up Turtle Hill on some hiking route, memories of them taking the boat out when they were told not to—and getting caught, or just reminiscing about Grandma’s ability to make 5 lunches in what used to be a tiny little kitchen area!

There were stories about the neighbors and childhood friends who would visit for the summer. I found out during one story telling time why all the pines along the driveway have, to this day, a bend in their trunk: the snow piles from the Blizzard of ’78 piled on top of them leaving them with that deformity. Why does the old maple tree in the back yard also have a bend in its trunk? It had to grow that way around the old garage which use to stand right next to it—and for anyone who was wondering, their use to be a “tiny room” connected to that garage. There were stories of the milkman coming and Saturday nights spent watching The Lawrence Welk Show in the small room beside the stair case. They had adventures of playing in the apple orchard behind the house, and later us grandkids would too!

We have heard stories of people being thrown off the end of the dock, pushed through windows and fires starting at the neighbor’s house! There have been trees that have been cut down, and others that fell on their own timing—almost taking out the neighbor’s summer cottage. There were additions which transformed the look of the house and made room for a growing family.

The family came together for so much: New Year’s, Grandma & Grandpa’s anniversary, birthdays, Easter, graduations, spring cleaning, aka: dock installation, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, July 4th—which was also my Grandpa’s birthday—Christmas, Thanksgiving, fall cleaning, aka: dock removal and on so many other occasions.

As I said, Grandpa’s birthday was July 4th, and that meant big crowds, lots of food and fireworks being shot from the island just out in front of the house. In the later years we even started an annual “4th of July Obstacle Course” which had some of the hardest laughing I’ve ever done before. My cousin and I also had a long tradition of playing patriotic music on the end of the dock right before the fireworks began—one year during a lightning storm!

What impressed me as a child? A driveway ½ mile long which very rarely saw a car travel down it, the sprinklers in the back yard which I used to run through, the small bell by the front door which I would ring with annoyance to everyone else, the landing on the staircase where my cousins and I would play school, the dozens upon dozens of old National Geographic magazines which Grandma and Grandpa stored upstairs on the bookshelves, the different colored rooms which reminded me of the White House, the music box in my grandpa’s room which use to play “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” the accordion style wall lamp which was in Grandma’s room and feeding ducks out on the end of the dock.

What marks have I left on the house? In Grandma’s room I tore the wallpaper at about the age of four when I was bored during nap time, and a blue marker spot on the wallpaper leading upstairs from playing school. My mom told me just this past weekend that when they were kids they removed a loose brick from the fireplace and placed a note behind it—as far as she knows it’s still there!

Grandpa and Grandma’s legacy is still very much a part of Klinger Lake. Grandpa was brilliant when it came to designing and crafting. In 1961 he began his own business, Con-De Manufacturing, selling a uniquely designed dock which telescoped its pieces together, making for easy installation and removal. Grandma helped him run the business by keeping the books and answering the telephones. It was a small business but had a large imprint: today the majority of docks on Klinger Lake are Con-De built, and even many surrounding lakes have them dotting their shoreline.

What I’ve learned over the years is that although we cared for that house very much, it wasn’t the house which made the memories: it was the family! When you empty a house of all its stuff, it’s left with a void, but if you follow the family that once lived there, that is where you can find life. If Grandpa and Grandma were alive today, I know they would be proud of our family for keeping old traditions and making new ones. They would be proud to have known that 13 of their great-grandchildren were able to come visit that house they bought way back in November of 1954. They would be proud to see what each of us have done with our lives and how we have grown.

Today we are thankful for having been blessed with that house, with Klinger Lake and all the memories there. We grew and became closer because of our time spent together at that beautiful place. Most importantly, I know we are thankful that we still have each other and that will never change!

The family gathered together this past 4th of July.

The north side of the house.

Original field stone around the fireplace.

The wallpaper I tore at the age of four is still up in Grandma's old room.

View from the lake.

As kids we enjoyed playing on the stairs!

Looking over the dock from upstairs bedroom.

The heaters were a bit outdated, but classic... they made the clinking noise as the hot water flowed through the pipes.

The large maple in the middle of the yard which was forced to grow around the old garage!

Grandpa's original Con-De Dock from 1961, still standing strong!

Sunset on Klinger.

The old pine had a twin until it fell towards the neighbor's house several years ago...this one has survived the test of time!

Klinger Lake on July 4, 1980.

A younger generation enjoying the lake...July 4, 2013.

Summer evening 2013.

Summertime recreation!

The driveway to Grandma & Grandpa's

Early April 2009.

April snow, 2009.

We love you Grandpa & Grandma!!



Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Face of a Stranger

Next to the Peace Corps office in Samoa is a small convenient store. It’s situated at a busy three-corner intersection where the flow of customers is constant from morning till night. From my earliest visits to this store, there was a woman I came to recognize on the front step. She sat there day after day as people came and went. As people approached the door of the store, she would turn to them and ask for money and say she was hungry. Sometimes I saw people give her money, but I also saw many people pass by her without recognition.

In the beginning, I felt a little uncomfortable. I wanted to help her and trust her to use the money well, but at the same time, I was a volunteer on a limited budget. Rather than giving her money, I chose to befriend her with a smile, always saying hi as I walked past her, or asking how she was. I didn’t want to ignore her, but make her know she was thought of.

In the beginning, she was timid and somewhat unfazed by my acts of friendship. She would sometimes look at me with disappointment when I didn’t give her money, but instead just said hi. But over time, she returned my greeting with a smile and came to accept that I wouldn’t give her money, but would give her friendship.

I left Samoa at the end of my Peace Corps service without saying goodbye to her, and without even knowing her name. When I returned home to the States, I remembered her and felt a sense of regret for not at least asking her name.

Then in April 2012, I was able to return to Samoa for my time with the Catholic Church’s Youth Bands. I was walking down the warm and dusty streets of Apia my first week back and there she was, the same women who I had come to smile at in front of the convenient store. Except this time, she had moved and was sitting in front of a hardware store across town and near the church’s recreation hall. I walked towards her, although on the other side of the street, she saw me and got a huge smile on her face and said, “Hey, you!” I smiled back and waved. I was very touched that she had remembered me, even though I had been away for four months.

Because of the route I took to get to my band rehearsals in town, I happened to pass by her every day. Each day we would wave. I had been there for about a month when I started reading a book, which was Mother Teresa’s biography. In that book I saw how Mother Teresa came to serve and love the poor and reached out to them without hesitation. She wasn’t afraid to be seen with them or to minister to them. I began to feel a call to reach out to this woman whose face I had come to know so well, yet, who in reality, I hardly knew at all.

One day, shortly after having read the book, I bought a small stuffed apple pie pastry and took it over to her where she sat. When I gave it to her she thanked me. I knelt down beside her as people hurried past us. With the busyness of the Apia streets as our background noise, I asked her what her name was and she said, “Alitasi.” I told her my name and where I was working. It was a very simple conversation, but the meaning was much deeper for both of us.

From then on, when I passed her, it was more than just a wave; now I knew her name and would greet her as such. I think she forgot my name, since she never called me by mine, but I knew she never forgot my face. I continued to stop from time to time with food — either bread, rice, or one time, even a McDonald’s hamburger. I didn’t give her food every day, so she came to appreciate my ability to surprise her on occasion.

As my assignment with the band began to come to an end in December, my trips past her normal spot became less. It was approaching my last couple of weeks in the country and I wanted to say a proper goodbye. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks and was beginning to wonder where she was. One afternoon, I bought her some food and took it over but she wasn’t there, so I just sat there where she normally would be, and began to pray. I prayed that I might see the world through her eyes for but a moment. I sat there and watched as busy people passed in front of me. Some looked down at me with a curious look on their face; perhaps they knew she normally sat there and wondered what I was doing in her spot. I remember as I sat there some kids had just gotten out of school and stopped to ask what I was doing. I wondered to myself if they would have stopped to visit with Alitasi?

As many of you know, the day before I was to leave Samoa, a devastating cyclone hit the islands and caused the airport to cancel all the flights. I had been in the capital and was trying to get out to my former Peace Corps village to pick up Saulo, Milo and Neueli who were supposed to be traveling back to the States with me for the Samoan Youth Empowerment Program. I was worried sick, not knowing if they and their families were safe after the cyclone and all I wanted was a friend, someone familiar, someone to talk to. I felt so alone, so frustrated, so angry at the situation. And then God gave me what I needed: a good friend.

Walking back from the grocery store through muddy water that came up to my knees, I saw Alitasi walking towards me and the smile on both of our faces could have parted the clouds. In all the commotion of the cyclone, I hadn’t even thought to say goodbye to her, but yet, God was giving me that chance this time, and besides that, He knew I needed a friend more than ever. We walked towards each other and she asked me in Samoan, “What are you doing?” and in a tone as if to indicate I was crazy for walking the streets after the storm. I told her my flight had been canceled and I would be leaving for the United States in a few days. I asked her if she was ok and she said she was fine. When she knew I was leaving, she told me she wanted to get me a present as a goodbye gift. She said she was going to find me an ie lava lava (sarong). I knew this would probably be the last time we would see each other, and although I knew she probably couldn’t get me that gift she wanted to, it meant the world to me that she had wanted to, just because we had become friends.

As the rain began to drizzle on us, we embraced with a big hug and then she gave me a kiss on the cheek. I remember people walking past us and seeing our goodbye there along the edge of the road. She told me to take care of myself and I told her I loved her. She said “Alofa atu oe,” (I love you).

As I walked away, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and gratitude for her friendship, for her comfort during that time of distress, and for our getting to know one another. That was the last time I saw her, but I think of her often. I try to remind myself never to forget her and the things she taught me about myself and others. She was a true friend when I needed one, and hopefully I was able to be the same for her.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Moving Forward

Boarding the plane after a week delay.

I’ll start this by admitting this blog has been neglected for too long. I can remember I was about to post a blog about Cyclone Evan’s approach into Samoa on December 13, 2012, when the internet crashed in Apia, just hours before that historic storm devastated parts of that country. Much has happened since then, and although I have since left Samoa and returned to the United States, I want to add a pulse to this blog again. There is still so many things to share and reflect on about the Samoan culture, its people and traditions.

Having lived there for nearly three years, I found that it became expensive and time consuming to try and update blog posts with quality writing, but now that I have had some months away and time to reflect once again on where I’ve been, what I’ve done and how I’ve changed, I feel it’s important to share more stories that I believe are worth telling.

Therefore, I am setting the goal to write at least two blogs a week, at least until I feel I have exhausted all I can. Some blogs may be longer, while others just a short bit, but my goal is two! I invite you to continue reading about Samoa and the people and places that make that country so amazing!

I want to dedicate the rest of this blog post to providing a follow up on Saulo, Milo and Neueli’s trip to the United States over the Christmas holiday last year.

Our faith and patience were tested late last year when Cyclone Evan bore down on Samoa. After months of paperwork and fundraising and the demanding task of obtaining visas for all three boys, we were all ready to leave the country together on December 15th when our plans were altered by the wild winds of the South Pacific.

Cyclone Evan did lots of damage, but most of that damage was felt on the eastern portions of Upolu, the very location of the boys’ village. After the Cyclone skirted off the shores of a fragile Samoa, the true faith of its people shone. Perhaps that faith was seen the best in the three young men I was about to take to America: Milo, Saulo and Neueli.

Upon arriving at their house following the Cyclone, I was moved with emotion to see Milo’s family had lost their entire house. Saulo’s family had lost their roof. And although Neueli’s house wasn’t damaged, he clearly was shaken by what he had lived through. Not knowing when our canceled flight would be rescheduled, I decided to take Saulo, Milo and Neueli with me that day back to my house which was closer to the airport. Their faith in God and their family was evident when they each told me on their own that they still wanted to travel to the United States, even though their houses had been damaged or destroyed. I told them how proud I was and that I don’t think I would have been able to do the same.

Our flight ended up being rescheduled a week later and we flew back to Chicago just in time for Christmas, arriving on December 22nd.

I could spend another 50 blogs just writing about their experiences and activities while in the United States for those five weeks, but instead I will refer you to the blog for the program (empowersamoayouth.blogspot.com) which many of you have read and are up-to-date with. That gives a more detailed account of their trip along with videos.

For this space, I’ll simply say it was such a joy for them to be able to visit and learn. They grew so much and I can see how it changed them to become more confident and more outgoing. When they returned to Samoa they shared their experiences with kids in their village and showed pictures as well. With the help of my Peace Corps friend Lilli and her husband David, they taught the kids how to play the American game of baseball with a bat and ball I had sent back with them.

Also, before we left for the United States, I had a friend who is a language instructor from the Peace Corps office give them an interview in English and record their scores. Following their trip they met with the instructor again for a similar interview, but asking them questions about their trip. She was very impressed by their improvements and by their confidence levels. Milo went from a 47% to a 71%, Neueli from a 38% to a 70% and Saulo from a 92% to 100%! All three of them accomplished so much!

I will end this blog by saying how proud I am of Saulo, Milo and Neueli and all they accomplished. They left their families at a very difficult time to travel 7,000 miles to a new country for the first time. They did something that most in their country don’t have the opportunity to do, nor even kids their age in the United States! They are going to turn out to be great leaders in their villages, churches and families and in the end, that is what the whole program was about, changing their lives to help change other Samoan’s lives in the future!

I’m trying to construct a flow chart diagram to illustrate all those people who helped play a role in making their trip possible. Perhaps I will share it on this blog when I am able to count everyone. However, I do know that without the help of so many others, and the good gifts that God gave to us throughout the whole process, nothing would have been possible. Thank you to all, and I look forward to writing more about our wonderful Samoa in the weeks and months to come!


After their first Interview in December.



Trees that washed down the river to the bridge near Aggie Grey's.



The famous Pulu trees fell down along Beach Rd. in Apia.


Visiting the John Hancock Building in Chicago!


Visiting with their new friends in the 5th grade here in the U.S.A.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

I’ve now had four Thanksgivings in Samoa and every one of them have been special. This year, as has been the tradition, Peace Corps gathered at the official residence of the U.S. Charge de Affairs. Although I’m not officially Peace Corps this year, I was still fortunate to be able to attend. Chad Berbert, the Charge de Affairs and his predecessor, Robin Yeager have always been great about welcoming Peace Corps Volunteers and staff into their house during a time of year when many of us turn our thoughts to our families.

This year when I arrived I was pulled aside by Chad and asked if I would say grace before the meal. I guess word is getting around that I’m planning to apply to the seminary because I’ve been called on more lately for these types of things. It was a great honor and I was happy to start our gathering by offering thanks to God.

Every year I am amazed at the variety and quality of food that comes together for this feast, given the fact that we are on an island a long ways from where any Turkeys are! The table was packed from one end to the other and adjacent was a round table packed with pies and other good deserts. I had taken a vegetables tray for my contribution. Vegetables seemed to be the most popular item, right behind the mashed potatoes. Volunteers become a bit deprived of fresh vegetables living in the rural villages.

Chad took time to acknowledge the members of Group 83 who were leaving after their two years of service, as well as Lilli, who is from my group, Group 82, after her 3rd year extension. They were each awarded with a certificate of appreciation signed by the Ambassador to Samoa and New Zealand. Although he wasn’t able to attend because of other commitments, he has always shown a great deal of support for Peace Corps here in Samoa. Each of the volunteers also got a medal. I had gotten the same certificate and medal last year so it brought back good memories and reminded me that a whole year had passed.

Overall, it was a great afternoon with friends who love our country and also have come to love this country of Samoa. Many of us have enjoyed our time here, although I’m sure many will be looking forward to next year when we are able to celebrate the day with family once again in the States.


Lilli from Group 82 after nearly completing her 3 years in Samoa. Here she is with Peace Corps Country Director, Dale Withington and Charge de Arriars, Chad Berbert.


Danny from Group 83 who is finishing his service this month.


Katie from Group 83, also closing her service this month.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Moving Back in Time

When I first came to Samoa in 2009, I had bought a watch for about $30.00. I had never worn a watch before then, but thought I should have one for the two year experience overseas. It served me well and I wore it nearly every day. During those moments of homesickness it was a reminder of what time it was back home, and also a constant recognition of how slow time could pass by when you are really in the dumps.

But life got better and the time on that watch seemed to pass by faster. It marked the beginning of each day and brought an end to them as well. In some odd and peculiar way, I formed some type of attachment to it as though it were a friend.

My last night in the village before I left Samoa last year, someone stole the watch. There were a handful of people it could have been, although I had a pretty good idea of who it was early on. When I lost that watch it was as if I had lost a part of the previous two years. It wasn’t the best way to end my last night in the village, but I tried not to let one person’s greed get me down.

When I was preparing to return to Samoa this past April, I knew the importance of having a watch. However, I didn’t want just any watch, I wanted the exact same kind I had come to know so well so I searched several stores until I found it! I bought it and brought it over, determined not to have it stolen or lost.

Well returning to Samoa this year brought with it many unique opportunities to reconnect with a life I had thought I had left for good. A couple months after being back, I was in my old village visiting and found my old watch which had been stolen. It was like a reunion of sorts, and I have to admit I was glad to see that the battery had gone dead and not remained loyal to its new “owner.” I took the watch home and tucked it inside my suitcase with the plans to add it to my memory box back in Michigan.

Unfortunately, this week I put my new watch in my pocket and I lost it through the sizeable hole in the pocket. I’ve trained myself not to put coins in there anymore, but forgot that the watch could slip through the opening. The watch was gone and I was feeling as though I had done it again, this time it was my own fault. That’s when I got an idea!

I dug through my suitcase and came across the original watch that had been stolen and had gone dead. I remembered that I had brought along the back-up batteries which I had bought for the watch back in 2009. With a small screwdriver used for maintenance on my glasses, I opened the back of the watch and started it up again. It felt like I had brought a part of my past back to life. That watch which had stood through so many tough days my first two years here was again keeping time, and counting down my final two weeks in this country.

I think it’s ironic that I’m ending my journey in Samoa with the same watch which I had begun it with. I’ve bridged the years together and will close them with the watch that started the race in the beginning. It will bring an end to my years in Samoa but remind me of the way it began.