From Hoops To Hope: Educating Pacific Islander Youth Through Culture

By United Way of King County, on May 25, 2022 | In Helping Students Graduate, Racial Equity

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month began as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week in 1978 with a joint congressional resolution. Congress expanded the observance to one month in 1992, renaming it Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Most recently, the heritage and cultures of the original people of Hawaii have also been celebrated this month, leading some organizations—including United Way of King County—to include Native Hawaiian in the celebratory month’s title.

United Way celebrates Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month by recognizing individuals from the United Way community who have played key roles in helping make lives better for King County residents. Here featured is Naomi Mulitauaopele Tagaleo’o, executive director of Education with Purpose Foundation for Pacific Islanders.

Seattle area reporters can pronounce Condolezza Rice and Mike Krzyzewski with ease, but many had the darndest time accentuating the right syllable on former star high school basketball player Naomi Mulitauaopele Tagaleo’o’s first name. No matter how many times the Chief Sealth standout remarked that her name carried the pronunciation of her Samoan heritage—now-OH-me—writers kept uttering the Americanized version: NAY-oh-me.

Finally, Tagaleo’o’s mother Aperila had enough of her daughter’s name being butchered. “Just call her Omi,” Aperila said.

Omi became everyone’s name of choice for Tagaleo’o, while she helped lead the Stanford women’s basketball team to three Final Fours, when she became a first-round draft pick in the WBNA, while she played overseas, even off the court. For her, it was among many ways her Pacific Islander heritage and culture didn’t have space and appreciation in the mainstream, why elders in her community didn’t always teach their children Samoan language, lest they fail to fit in with their English-speaking world.

When her basketball playing days were over, Tagaleo’o was eager to help educate younger generations of Pacific Islanders by teaching them their own culture, their own language and heritage while helping them navigate the complex mainstream education system and corporate world. In 2009, she founded Education with a Purpose Foundation for Pacific Islanders (EDWPF), a Kent-based organization that develops programs, hosts events, and provides information to help Pacific Islander students and families pursue goals through education.

Funded by donors that include United Way of King County, EDWPF’s targets the parent-to-student relationship among Pacific Islander families, and it provides education resources from early learning through college.

“I wanted to bring something into the community; my passion was to bring students a roadmap, because I didn’t have one,” said Tagaleo’o, whose father, Toa’ale Sr., co-founded the Northwest Association of Pacific Americans. “My father didn’t get a chance to go to college because he didn’t have a roadmap. I realized that children are going to school and not being taught why. Hence, it is named Education with Purpose.”

Tagaleo’o reached out to local high schools, who allowed her to implement a curriculum that teaches Pacific Islander students how to navigate the education system as well as their history as Pacific Islanders, and how their history differs from that of Asian Americans, whom they are often categorized with in official documents.

Naomi Mulitauaopele Tagaleo’o, executive director, Education with Purpose Foundation for Pacific Islanders

“I spent a lot of my time discussing that with our students, that we just got here in the 1950s,” said Tagaleo’o. “And the students are very taken aback because they didn’t realize how new we are to the American fabric. I tell them that’s why you don’t see a lot of Samoan markets or doctors or lawyers or business owners. We’re new to the landscape.”

EDWPF teaches students and parents almost every aspect of the education system through workshops, trainings and events. Its programs include:

  • Scholars with Purpose After School Program: Offered during the winter and spring months, the program helps students prepare for life after high school.
  • Works Of Expression Program: The program helps students raise their grades from F to A in just three weeks. It offers fun activities and hands-on projects to enable Pacific Islander students to use their own culture to integrate into American school systems.
  • EDWPF Summer Youth Program: Beginning in June and ending with a Back-to-School BBQ in August, the program students improve their knowledge in math, reading and spelling.

EDWPF also helps students find scholarships and apply for financial aid. Plus, it offers a Student Help Line for teens who might find it challenging to communicate to family, peers and teachers about concerns. EDWPF shows parents how to track their children’s academic progress online, find tutoring resources and prepare their children’s college preparatory plans.

EDWPF serves about 60 high school students a year in such cities as Seattle, Federal Way and Kent. It moved from in-person to virtual during the pandemic and is now offered in middle schools. Recently, it held programs in Kent Meridian, Rainier Beach, Foster and Decatur high schools as well as Dimmitt and Mill Creek middle schools.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, EDWPF extended its mission to provide rental aid for King County Pacific Islander families while still recognizing the need to offer academic and cultural workshops and services. It sought to use education to inform the Pacific Islander community about the pandemic and offered ways the community can protect itself against COVID’s spread.

EDWPF also distributed rental aid to over 100 Pacific Islander families through donations from funders such as United Way. And, EDWPF distributed more than 1,000 free personal protective equipment items, including masks, sanitizer and cleaning products, throughout the county.

When the 2020-2021 academic year began, EDWPF sought to return to its primary mission of helping families through education. Yet, opting to go virtual during the pandemic has expanded its reach.

“I’m very proud of this new model of ours,” said Tagaleo’o’, “and my hope is that more virtual afterschool programs are created, especially because these no longer have activities busses and our Pacific Islander families do not have the transportation to allow our students to attend after school activities.”


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