Creating Opportunities for Samoan Youth
Youth are an integral part of life in Samoa. The extended family is the foundation of the culture and therefore the children are the foundation of life. This is true at the National Park of American Samoa (NPSA) as well. There is no standalone, isolated youth program or group. Employing, mentoring and developing youth is part of what the park does every day in every branch. They are not thought of as youth, but as the future of the park and of stewardship in Samoa.
During the past ten years, NPSA has employed, recruited and worked with over 100 local Samoan youth through its ‘youth development program.’ Today, local youth are employed by NPS appointments and volunteer internships within every park operational area encompassing cultural resources, natural resources (marine and terrestrial), maintenance and trails, administration, and interpretation and education branches. Each individual brings different perspectives and contributions, helping to shape the direction and relevancy of NPSA in American Samoa. Thus far, the park has been able to prioritize limited resources towards youth skills development to grow a cadre of park stewards, supporters and potential employees. Through multiple recruitment strategies, the park has discovered outstanding youth. These strategies include participation in formal internship programs with the Pacific Island Center for Education (PICED), the American Samoan Government Student Employment Program (SYEP) and AmeriCorps. Other successful methods have been through recruitment of exceptional high school and community college students, job fairs and selecting from individuals who have taken the initiative to approach NPSA on their own.
The National Park of American Samoa is a unique park in the National Park Service (NPS). It contains 13,500 acres (including 4,000 underwater acres) of highly diverse and globally important paleotropical rainforest and Indo-Pacific coral reefs on three of five islands of American Samoa. Established in 1988, it is the only NPS unit south of the Equator, melding the national park idea within the intact and vibrant Samoan culture. Land and nearshore waters within the park are leased for a 50 year period from seven villages and the territorial government. This agreement between governments upholds the traditional communal land and matai (chief) systems while still protecting important natural and cultural resources. Much of the 69,000 population is bilingual in English and Samoan. For many, the Samoan language is their first language and therefore most comfortable. The park’s enabling legislation specifies to hire, educate and promote the Samoan people and that the park be managed to protect its rich resources within the context of “fa’asamoa” (the Samoan way).
Although a U.S. Territory, youth living in American Samoa generally do not have access to the higher quality education, income levels or heath care system as youths living in the United States. The strength in Samoan society is the strong ties to family and culture which nurtures those in need. Unemployment in American Samoa is extremely high (29.89% cited in 2005).
Since its inception in 1988, the park has been a place of opportunity and enrichment for all levels from superintendent to the many dedicated volunteers from surrounding villages. What is most striking, and arguably the park’s greatest attribute, is its staff – a group of dedicated, enthused individuals who seek both professional and self-growth and desire to share the ideals of the national park concept appropriately within Samoan society. The staff composition is 35-50 staff, over 90% Samoan. This is a result of two decades of focused local youth recruitment the coincides with a potential ladder of opportunity and mentorship for promising individuals.
Examples of Youth at Work
Habitat Restoration This crew of up to 20 youth accomplishes some of the most notable restoration work on the island. Invasive non-native tamaligi trees grow fast and tall, quickly overcoming the native forest canopy. Each crew member gains a broad understanding of their contributions to a healthier island ecosystem. The crew strips about six feet of bark from around each tree (“girdling”) which creates very noticeable dead invasive trees throughout the landscape. The crew collects seeds from culturally important native trees, propagates them in a nursery and plants the saplings on deforested areas to prevent massive soil erosion into the coral reef ecosystem. Other tasks include mapping each tree and reforestation plot using GPS technology and recording data from monitoring plots in treated areas to track project success.
Tua Gaoteote joined the park staff as a volunteer with the habitat restoration crew in 2003. Through hands-on experience and encouragement from his NPS supervisor (who himself first came to NPSA via an Americorps internship), Tua was inspired to pursue a bachelor’s degree and also compete successfully for an ASCC scholarship as an academic researcher with the Pacific Internship Program for Exploring Science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Ike Sagaga was recruited through the PICED internship program in 2007. He stays on year after year as a seasonal employee in the summers while attending American Samoa Community College (ASCC) the rest of the year. Each summer his leadership and technical skills have grown and he now serves as a crew leader. Ike’s dedication, fitness level and work ethic set the bar for the rest of the crew.
Marine Resources This NPSA branch follows rigorous scientific protocols for inventory and monitoring of fish and coral reefs. The program requires an aptitude in marine studies, diving certification to perform monitoring techniques, and mechanical ability in boat and equipment maintenance.
Tasi Toloa began in 2008 as a youth volunteer and seasonal on the trail and maintenance crew. During this time, he showed outstanding mechanical aptitude and interest in marine resources, catching the notice of the marine ecologist. Tasi is now working as a seasonal in the marine program and just received his diving certification!
Administration This branch takes care of payroll, budget, personnel services, contracting and a suite of other administrative tasks to keep the park functioning.
Elaine Lio came to the park in 2010 through the SYEP internship program working on the habitat restoration crew. At the end of the internship, Elaine signed up as a volunteer in the administration branch and was recently hired as a seasonal administrative clerk while she continues to pursue her associate’s degree in natural resources at ASCC. Mareta Si’a has followed in Elaine’s footsteps, just finishing a SYEP internship with NPSA Administration and she just accepted a volunteer opportunity to stay onboard while she continues classes for her associate’s degree in accounting at ASCC.
Maintenance and Wildland Fire Although wildland fires are not an issue in the humid tropical rainforests of American Samoa, NPSA administers a Pacific West Region crew of approximately 40 wildland firefighters who are on call for fire assignments anywhere in the United States. This is an opportunity for local youth to learn new skills, gain experience and employment.
Kitiona Osotonu first came to NPSA as a volunteer for the maintenance and trails branch in 2003. He received his wildland firefighter type II redcard in American Samoa in 2004 and went on to serve five summers on the Yosemite National Park wildland fire crew. He spent his winters working as a seasonal employee on the NPSA trail crew. His experience and success has inspired others to follow suit. Charles VeaVea also had his start as a volunteer youth on the NPSA trail crew and is spending his second season on the wildland firefighter crew at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
Interpretation and Education Tourism is not a significant industry in American Samoa, so park visitation mostly consists of residents. NPSA focuses on outreach to schools and church groups through educational programming in the classroom and field trips conducted in the Samoan language. The Junior Ranger Program is less than one year old and has already become popular on the island.
Joseph Leleua was introduced to NPSA in 2008 through his mother who volunteered at NPSA as a skilled demonstrator of traditional weaving. His interest and initiative in learning more about and share the Samoan culture was impressive. He has increased his training and skills in that realm ever since. Joe is now in the Student Temporary Employment Program working for both cultural resources and interpretation branches while attending the ASCC. Joe is a proud steward and example for his community. He is well known by many of the local school children as “Ranger Joe.”
Sam Meleisea was recruited in 2010 from the ASCC where he excelled in all subjects and demonstrated talent as a confident and respectful speaker. As a volunteer and student hire he has learned the art and science of interpretation through the mentorship of the division chief. Sam’s programs are enormously successful and enjoyable for the audience and have impacted thousands of his fellow young people throughout the territory. Like Joe, wherever he goes you can hear school children say hi to “Ranger Sam.”
Maintaining and growing youth opportunities at NPSA
As portrayed above, NPSA has been extremely successful in creating opportunities for local youth and maintaining a positive trend in long-lasting career development and engagement in the National Park Service. These goals are inherent in the very mission of the park. The potential is great to improve, professionalize and grow a youth program that benefits NPSA and other national park units across the nation while enriching the lives and careers of Samoan youth. NPSA invites a review by the PWR Youth Coordinator to bring new ideas and resources and the message that the NPS is seriously committed to engage youth and enhance diversity in its workforce and among its stewards and supporters.
NPSA recently established a formal partnership with the non-profit group American Conservation Experience (ACE). The ACE partnership allows NPSA to expand and support its youth program by attracting additional funding and, provide a mechanism to pay international Samoan youth from Independent Samoa and facilitate youth recruitment and retention.
Goals for the Future
To date, all funding for the various aspects of the ‘youth program’ at NPSA has come from NPS operations (base) or natural resources or VIP projects. The park wishes to seek additional funding to grow the program to reach its full potential. There are numerous possibilities to expand the program to involve other enrichment opportunities for local youth. A cultural exchange program where Samoan youth have the opportunity to live and work in a mainland national park would expand the experience base of the participant and the potential growth of NPSA and the NPS by exposing mainland staff to Samoan culture. The ultimate goal to hire Samoan managers at NPSA can only occur if we can increase the opportunities for NPSA youth to “graduate” and attain NPS jobs outside of NPSA.