Lee Cataluna: The auntie who held Waipahu together
Auntie Fay Uyeda’s emails were typed in all caps. When someone gently told her that style wasn’t proper etiquette and that it seemed like screaming, her response was to type all her emails in capital letters and in bold.
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Auntie Fay Uyeda’s emails were typed in all caps. When someone gently told her that style wasn’t proper etiquette and that it seemed like screaming, her response was to type all her emails in capital letters and in bold. She wasn’t one to water down her message.
Barbie-Lei Burgess has been going through her mentor’s correspondence trying to make sure everyone knows about the memorial on Saturday. Auntie Fay helped so many people from different walks of life. There’s no easy way to find everyone and tell them.
Fay Tsuruko Uyeda, 75, died Oct. 23 almost a year after suffering a debilitating stroke. She was a teacher, community leader and the founder of programs that brought structure, hope and unwavering courage into some of the toughest community situations.
One thing Burgess has discovered going through the all-caps emails is that no matter who Auntie Fay was writing to — from grant committees to the neighborhood kids who appeared at her door, drawn to her light — her message was always the same. “She was so consistent in everything she said and did, ” Burgess said.
That message was of the power of community.
Auntie Fay graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in secondary education speech and drama in 1966. She went to graduate school at Southern Illinois University where she earned her master’s degree in human service systems. She worked as a youth detention worker, a teacher to disadvantaged children and a counselor before coming home to Hawaii. She started the first on-site drug prevention and intervention program for the Department of Education in the 1970s. In the 1990s she founded Communities in Schools- Hawaii, partnering with the YMCA and later the Volunteer Center of Hawaii to provide leadership training, social support, academic tutoring and all manner of straight-up aloha to kids and families in the Waipahu area known to many as “the Pupus,” an area of low-income walk-up apartments with a reputation for brutality. She held training programs for other nonprofits on the Ohana Management System, an organizational structure she created built on Hawaiian traditional values and concepts.
All through her career, Auntie Fay worked with at-risk groups, though she didn’t like that term. To her way of thinking, anybody could be “at risk,” and, in the same regard, anybody could be a helper. “She was all about inclusion,” Burgess said. “In speaking she didn’t like to exclude anyone.”
Burgess recalls the time Auntie Fay held a community meal at her organization in Waipahu. Each family was asked to contribute something to dinner, whatever they could. One little boy brought a single can of Vienna sausage. The boy’s mother was upset because what they could afford was so little compared with some of the other dishes. The boy was upset because he wanted that can of Vienna sausage all to himself. The can was opened and the contents sliced thin so that everyone could have some on their plate alongside all the other food that was being served. The lesson was this: The can of sausage wasn’t too much or too little; it was just right in the context of community sharing.
“We are a net, each one an ‘eye,’ surrounded by the connecting ‘eyes,’ supported by and supporters of one another,” said Sister Bitrina Kirway, a Catholic nun from Tanzania who recalled learning this from Auntie Fay. “If pilikia (trouble) comes to one, it impacts all. We catch nothing with puka (holes) or hiahia (entanglement). It behooves each of us to take care of our net.”
The people who were closest to Auntie Fay in her later years, who all tell tearful stories of all the times she pointed them in the right direction and reminded them of their responsibilities to the community, are hoping to find all those who maybe hadn’t seen Auntie in a long time but were affected by her guidance. They want them to know about the memorial and to come share their own stories.
Leilani Perkins was a member of Auntie Fay’s Alakai Malama leadership academy in Waipahu when she was in high school. She remembers her saying, “When the people that are following you can carry on when you are not there, then that is a sign of a great leader.”
Fay Uyeda’s students are reminding themselves of this as they prepare their goodbyes, knowing what Auntie would expect of them and what she would want for her legacy.
COURTESY COMMUNITIES IN SCHOOLS — HAWAII
Celebration of life
>> Who: Auntie Fay Uyeda
>> When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday
>> Where: Waipahu Elementary School cafeteria