Less then a week ago we tragically lost a former Ulu Pono Kid, Jay Nihoa Baird. Jay was only 14 years old and his death was alcohol related. Over the past days so many emotions have spiraled through me; anger, sadness, guilt but also a spurring to share the incredible, but too often heart breaking stories of the people I work with here in Hawaii. The story of Jay is still too raw for me to write about quite yet, but it has encouraged me to share the story of others.
Two years ago I jumped into the position of Ulu Pono Director at Surfing The Nations. Taking on this role began me on a path of deep relationship with many of the local people. I vaguely remember meeting Nebi Silk, Marshallese mother of six for the first few times when I would pick up her then 9 year old Bryant, 4 year old Akiko and 2 year old Queeny for Ulu Pono. My first distinct memory of her was a Wednesday some time in February 2013 when I first noticed an unusual bruise looking mark covering half of Queeny’s midsection. Immediately assuming it was a bruise, and knowing her boyfriend, Queenny’s father Alex had been known for being violent in the home, I burst into tears and sought out Jeremy, my department head at the time. We visited the home and asked Nebi about the bruises and she laughed at us. I was fuming, how could this mother laugh when we asked her about this bruise, didn’t she know how serious this was. Jeremy and I prayed for many hours together in the office that night. We prayed for the family, for Queeny and Nebi and we prayed about contacting child services. Over the next week we monitored the mark, which never changed and when we were finally able to speak to Alex he explained it was a birth mark, one Queeny has to this day. But why did Nebi laugh? A resentment grew in my heart against her for this, a resentment that wasn’t eased by her mess of a house, poor parenting skills and all over lack of responsibility.
But I also wasn’t ready to give up on her. I started spending more time at their house, basically inviting myself in, playing with her kids while she sat, she really didn’t seem to do much else. I would chase her kids down when they ran out of the house, pick them up when they fell head first off of a chair all while she sat...and sat. But after months of sitting on the floor with her and trying to talk with her in her non-existent english there was one thing I realized, she laughed when she didn’t understand me. So all those months ago when she had laughed when I had asked about the mark, she simply hadn’t understood me and that was her defense mechanism. When she didn’t understand, she would laugh.
But even after months of sitting with Nebi, I still felt a wall between us, one that I just couldn’t seem to clamber up and one she seemed to have no intention of taking down. Sometime over the summer Nebi and her family moved out of their cousin’s apartment and in with another Marshallese family. Jemity, the mother of this family had grown up with her grandparents in America and spoke fluent English. Because of this we were able to communicate with her with obvious ease, and began spending much more time in their home learning all kinds of stories about the Marshall Islands, their traditions and cultural differences.
In September of 2013 my year long commitment on staff was up and many of my friends and classmates were moving on, but I felt God prompting me to stay and I will always be so thankful for deciding to follow His prompting. It was as if, by making the decision to stay longer than my commitment, so many walls began to crumble. My relationships with the families and specifically Nebi began to grow and grow. Nebi would come and hang out at our apartment and I remember so many amazing and joyful times of drinking tea, watching Bollywood movies and “talking story” with her. Her girls began to spend the night with us and go to the beach with us as Nebi began to trust us more and more. Nebi began to be more responsible and even began to dream about the possibility of her and Alex having their own home. I would encourage her to get her youngest daughters in pre-school so she could get a job and help make this dream a reality and she would laugh and say maybe later.
By the spring of 2014 the family had moved about 40 minutes away to live with Nebi’s parents and then moved again to live with cousins. I was so disappointed for them to be so far away as we began to see them less and less. In the summer we began to see a change in Nebi, she seemed heavier and lazier than before. We would arrive at their house for a visit at 2pm and she would just be waking up. We began to wonder if she could be pregnant, but every time we asked she would deny it, laughing.
But she could only deny it for so long and a week before Christmas she told us she was 8 months pregnant, although she hadn’t seen a doctor yet. She also told us that when the baby was born he or she would be given to a cousin. I was crushed. All that time and trust I thought we had built seemed to have taken a big step back. Why had she lied to me for so many months? I still don’t have an answer to that question. Maybe she was ashamed that she hadn’t visited a doctor? Maybe she didn’t want us fussing over her? I don’t know if I will ever understand, but on January 6th Nebi gave birth to her seventh child, daughter Tarlia Marisa. She was born in Nebi’s mother’s home and given to Nebi’s cousin, who is married with her own home and one child of her own. We visited Nebi just a few days after she gave birth and she seemed tired, a little disconnected emotionally but overall well. She had visited a doctor after her birth and even been put on a five year birth control method, an amazing step towards not having her eighth child.
A few weeks later we visited her again and she seemed more energized than I had seen her in a long time, which makes sense now that we know she had been pregnant! I was asking her about Tarlia and how things were with Alex when she interrupted me to excitedly tell me that she had gotten a job! For the past week she had been taking the bus on a two hour journey to the mall to work as a cleaner there after hours! I could barely believe what I was hearing when she tells me she had actually really enjoyed working and was disappointed because she may have to stop as there was no-one to take care of Queeny and her 2 year old Natasha. Even though she may have had to stop working I am insanely proud of her and feel so blessed to have been an influence in her life in encouraging her to work and take responsibility for her family. A week ago Alex called me to ask me to help them find their own home, preferably in Wahiawa. I am not really sure how I can do this, but I hope and now truly believe that one day they have their own home!
Please continue to pray for me and my relationship with Nebi and her beautiful family!