The Asian Counseling and Referral Service’s OCEAN group helps teenagers connect with their Pacific Islander heritage. The nonprofit is one of 12 organizations making a difference with The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
For most of American history, immigrant parents have wondered how to raise respectful teenagers in a seemingly rootless new land.
Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) is into the third year of a helpful idea: Teach the children of Pacific Islander parents about the old ways, even if they’ve never visited the South Seas.
As many as 70 students gather weekly after class at Evergreen, Highline and Tyee high schools to learn languages, oral histories, dances and songs. The group, called OCEAN, offers students the chance to “get in touch with their indigenous side,” the agency says. The group also helps connect teens with individual counseling they may not otherwise seek on their own.
Asian Counseling and Referral Service
The organization was founded in 1973, when Asian-Pacific Americans were at risk of misdiagnosis or inappropriate care from service providers. The budget of around $18 million pays for counselors and other employees, along with contributions to food banks and senior meal services. It employs 240 full- and part-time staff and 700 volunteers who speak 45 languages and dialects, serving 26,000 people annually.
Teens from ACRS sang last winter for Gov. Jay Inslee in Olympia, about sunset at a king’s residence in the Vava’u island group of Tonga, surrounded by green hills and gardenia blossoms.
ABOUT THIS SERIESEach year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for a group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the fall and winter, The Times is telling how the 12 organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can make. Click here to donate to Fund For The Needy.
In May, during the More Music festival at the Moore Theatre, Aisake Makasini, 16, of White Center, led a seated Tongan dance that featured clapping, rowing and cradling gestures, then segued into a Samoan song.
The OCEAN teens, including Makasini’s older brother, Savelio, later joined young Seattle-area musicians to accompany superstar drummer Sheila E as she performed her 1984 hit, “The Glamorous Life.”
ACRS is among a dozen agencies to benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. Reader donations go toward youth and employment projects, including OCEAN, which stands for Oceanic Communities Educate Across Neighborhoods.
The lessons there have deepened the Makasini boys’ interest in Tonga, home of their ancestors.
They’ve heard tales of cliff diving, swimming in the rain, deep-sea scuba diving and a grandfather who was fishing in his underwear when a boat approached carrying British royalty.
“I want to see the traditions that we have over there, that we don’t really do here anymore,” said Aisake.
OCEAN group leader Mario Teulilo, a counselor of Tongan descent, said the oral histories inspire confidence among youth, in their intellectual powers.
“They wake up to the reality that ‘My ancestors actually navigated thousands of miles across ocean, not using anything except stars and water, and natural elements of the earth,’ ” he said. “You know, that’s science, that’s physics, that’s astronomy.”
Your dollars at work
Examples of what Asian Counseling and Referral Service can do with your donation:
$25: Funds one handheld camera for a youth filmmaking project.
$50: Buys a pair of work shoes or boots, for an immigrant who may be starting a hospitality or janitorial job.
$100: Pays for 80 hours training in English and job skills for an unemployed client.
For information: acrs.org
The Makasinis’ mother, Salote Makasini, an immigrant from Tonga, shed a tear talking about her sons.
“I’m so proud of my kids,” she said. “Right now life is dangerous, the kids are growing up. But I have to let them learn how to respect. School first, then the future.”
The boys say they’re preparing for college, and defying stereotypes about islander kids falling behind. The gatherings at OCEAN include practice in Tongan language, which help them follow Christian services in their church.
Participants represent a spectrum of experience, from youths who are also counseled for drugs or depression, to the cheerful Makasini boys.
“This is not a mental-health group. This is a skill-building group, to create higher resistance to stressors,” said Jennifer Kruger, a clinical supervisor. Youth discuss principles of love, respect, nurturing of relationships, sacrifice for a worthy cause and a humble spirit.
Salote Makasini said she’s relieved to know where her sons are Wednesday afternoons.
“They’re more obedient at home, and they take school to another level of paying attention,” she said. She has two younger daughters, who will participate soon.
Savelio, 18, her older son, says he enjoys being a peacemaker. Months ago, he defused a fight outside school, by embracing a cousin and reminding him to focus on studies.
OCEAN presented a handmade green lei to the family of Kenney Bui, the Evergreen football player who died after suffering a head injury this fall, he said.
Savelio said he’s been accepted by Washington State University and Central Washington University, and hasn’t chosen a career path.
Aisake showed off his black T-shirt that declares “Tokouso,” a greeting of peace. “Toko” is Tongan slang for a close acquaintance, and “uso” in Samoan means brother or sister. “Tokouso” signifies unity among Tongans and Samoans, despite past wars in the islands.
“That’s what’s beautiful about our region (Washington state) is, we get along really well,” said Savelio Makasini.
About 15,300 people of Pacific island descent live in King County, including 1,300 Tongans, 1,522 Hawaiians, 5,553 Samoans, 1,187 Fijians and 2,241 from Guam, according to census estimates from 2014.
Salote Makasini said she moved to East Palo Alto, Calif., in 1990 for better economic opportunities, finding work as a caregiver.
There she met her husband, Koli, who often works as a deckhand on Alaskan fishing boats, and as a religious adviser. He is taking citizenship classes at ACRS.
ACRS staff thinks more Pacific Islander immigrants might reach the Northwest because of global warming, which threatens higher and stormier seas. A medium emissions scenario predicts 6 inches sea rise and a 2 degree temperature increase from 2000 to 2030, according to Tonga 350 and the Australian-backed research coalition Pacific Climate Change.
Some villages on outlying Tongan islands have been damaged, Teulilo said. A few Tongans requested refugee status in New Zealand after a crippling hurricane, news accounts say.
Kruger said adults here don’t like to identify themselves as climate refugees, because it suggests people have abandoned hope of returning home.
The Makasini brothers say they wish to visit the islands for several months, maybe a year or two. They would meet relatives and relive a grandfather’s story.
“It talks about the time when him and his brother would go scuba diving and interact with sharks,” said Aisake Makasini. “It sounds scary, but I want to go experience that.”