Tavaesina Maiava will finish blazing a trail for her seven brothers and sisters when she walks across the stage in June to receive her Foster High diploma.
She’s a role model for them and an inspiration for the literally hundreds of other Tukwila students who have experienced homelessness. Her message: There is hope.
Tavaesina’s path to Tukwila began about five years ago, when her mom quit her job and the family could no longer pay the rent on its three-bedroom apartment in Tacoma.
They put all their belongings in storage and for one night, drove the streets of Tacoma in their mini-van until they final stopped in a huge parking lot outside Jack in the Box to figure out what to do now that they were homeless.
“My parents actually had no idea where to go,” Tavaesina said. “It was pretty rough.”
One night in a motel stretched to a month until the family, dad Sekeli and mom Lilieni and their six children finally found space in a shelter, first with the Salvation Army in Tacoma and then Adams Square Family Center.
They would stay in the shelters for several months, while Tavaesina was in the eighth grade. The summer before Tavaesina’s freshman year, the family moved to Tukwila and into a two-bedroom house next to their church, Riverton Park United Methodist Church.
The Maiava family settled into the Tukwila community, their kids in school and Sekeli serving as the music director for his church and playing the piano. He is working on his citizenship so he can get work.
Lilieni is out of work but is looking for a job. “Anything that’s available right now, I’ll take it,” she said.
They’re both proud of Tavaesina, 18, and what she’s accomplished, despite her family’s struggles.
“She managed to pull through herself and now she’s going to college,” Lilieni said. “She’s motivation for our eight kids. I know all my kids are going to walk through her steps.”
Besides Tavaesina, there’s William, 16, a sophomore at Foster, Moeshana, 14, a Showalter eighth-grader, George, 10, a Cascade View fifth-grader, Tasesa, 5, a Cascade View kindergartner, Joseph, 4, a preschooler at Thorndyke, and Lualima, 2.
Tavaesina will attend the University of Washington (her dream school since she was “a little kid”) on scholarships, where she plans to study psychology and eventually earn a master’s degree in social work.
Her goal is to become a school counselor, so she can return and give back to her community, she said. She’s the first in her family to go to college.
Tavaesina not only is a role model for her seven brothers and sisters, she’s also one for homeless kids and others at Foster. She has plenty of credibility with them, experiencing the same instability that homelessness brings, and can spot when someone isn’t engaged in school.
She felt the burden of homelessness at her Tacoma school and at home.
“It was really rough on me especially because I am the oldest in the family,” she said, taking on “a lot of responsibility,” including looking after her siblings.
She kept her head down at school.
“I felt embarrassed to sit in the classroom, with the only thoughts of me being a homeless student,” she said.
Her father reminded his children every day to do well in school, she said, acknowledging they’re going through a rough time.
You work hard, he told them, so you don’t go through this same situation again, she said.
Her mom was positive, saying everything was going to be OK, Tavaesina said. But she could see in her eyes that her mother was putting up a front.
At first, Tavaesina felt like giving up, but then, she said, this “was not the time to put yourself down.” Her motivation was to work hard as a student, but the experience still had an impact on her education.
“You need to pick yourself up, and if you want to get your family out of this situation, you need to step up, work hard, do the best you can,” she said.
Her advice for someone in a similar situation: Just push forward. Be strong. Her experience has shown her own potential to overcome such situations and what you’re willing to put yourself through to achieve your goals, she said.
At first the Maiava children didn’t want to leave Tacoma where they grew up and leave behind their school friends to move to Tukwila.
Roughly half of the church’s congregation is Samoan, attending a service at noon on Sunday’s in their native language. The Maiavas have attended the church for years, commuting there when they lived in Tacoma.
The children agreed to the move after their mother told them she couldn’t bear to see the family struggle a lot right now, Tavaesina said.
“Me and my siblings had to say to ourselves, ‘OK. She’s right. Let’s just move out there and get a new start, a new beginning for our family,’” she said. So they moved in summer 2012.
They likely will have to move by year’s end because the church is talking with a trust that would build affordable housing on the land where the Maivas’ house and a second one now sit.
The two-bedroom house, with one bathroom and a “decent-sized” living room, is a tight fight. “We have kids sleeping in the living room, in the other room, in my room. We are all over the place,” Tavaesina said.
Unfamiliar with high school, she was nervous to start her first day at Foster, especially at a big school with so many people, she said. But instead she found the Foster difference.
“When I first came out here to Foster, I kind of felt this welcoming vibe from everybody,” she said, from students and staff. “It’s very unusual, to be honest,” she said, because based on her school experience, everyone is just off “doing their own thing.”
She was also struck by Foster’s diversity, including a large number of Samoan students. “That was like another huge, great thing for me,” she said. “I could see my own people here.”
And then she got busy. Really busy. In sports, academics, clubs and activities.
She got her nickname, “T.”
She explains that one of her teammates on the Foster girls volleyball team kept “messing up” the pronunciation of her first name, so the teammate asked whether she could just call her “T.”
“And it got around the school and now the whole Tukwila community knows me as T,” she said.
This school year she’s president of EPIC, which is the Pacific Islander club at Foster. She’s an IGNITE mentor who works with freshmen. Her “huge” course load this year includes civics, chemistry, AP literature, French, chamber choir and pre-calculus.
Christina Busby, an art teacher at Foster and the EPIC adviser, calls Tavaesina a “strong wonderful person” and a leader.
“T is a very strong person and she has the ability to pull in other students,” Busby said. “She pushes other students to be successful in school, to attend club meeting s regularly.”
She’s also been open about telling her personal story to the benefit of others, Busby said.
“At first she was afraid and I think maybe embarrassed to tell other people about what she had gone through,” Busby said. “But then she started opening up more and telling first our club then the entire school her story. I feel that inspires other students to push themselves to be successful.”
Tavaesina is an accomplished athlete, too. She was the captain of the girls volleyball team and this spring plays first base on the girls fast-pitch softball team.
She thinks about the volleyball team every day, remembering the team’s success and her own. She was named to the Seamount League’s girls volleyball first team last fall.
“It’s a sport I really love to do,” she said.
Tavaesina credits her parents with her success and keeping their family together through the rough times. “I am just really proud to be their daughter,” she said.
Other parents facing a similar situation might give up and not focus on what’s best for their children, she said.
“But my parents pushed me through everything and I would say my whole family was a huge factor in making me become who I am today,” she said. “They were the ones behind my back the whole time.”
Honestly, she says, she glad she’s gone through her family’s hard times, because it has changed who she is.
“Although I hated what we went through, I loved how much of an impact it was on me because I was able to use that to inspire me, to motivate me, to become stronger and become a good student,” she said
She’ll see the fruits of her family’s struggles on June 10 at Foster’s graduation. And expect to see plenty of leis, a Pacific Islander tradition, maybe enough to cover her face.
She’s excited for commencement, to say the least, and glad she can celebrate her accomplishments – and her family’s.
“I finally did it. I mostly did it because of my family,” she said. “I want them to see me cross that stage knowing what we all went through together and what we were able to accomplish together.”
And, then, she’s on to another stage in her life.
“My story is not finished,” she said.