In recognition of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, IECF is pleased to introduce you to MALO, an IECF grantee and nonprofit organization serving Tongan Americans in the Inland Empire. MALO (Motivating Action Leadership Opportunity) provides support through youth mentorship, job readiness, resource literacy, and cultural events.
Lolofi Soakai, Founder and Executive Director of MALO, is a first-generation Tongan American who grew up in a family that valued faith, heritage and hospitality. Her father was a founder of the First United Methodist Church in Ontario, CA, where MALO regularly holds meetings today. In the 1970s, the Soakai home served as a stepping stone for many Tongan immigrants who needed a safe place to live while establishing homes of their own in the Inland Empire.
2017 was a turning point for Lolofi when the capstone project for her Master’s in Ethical Leadership asked the question, “What positive change do you want to see in the world?”
“Immediately, the elders, the children, our community – they all flashed through my mind,” Lolofi says. “I determined then and there that I wanted to see positive change in the Tongan community. We’ve been working toward equity since my parents came in the 70s,” she reflects, “yet we’re still in the same position. Tongans are under-resourced and underserved. They don’t have a real voice or identity here.”
“So often Tongans are mistaken for Hawaiians,” she continues, “or lumped together under the API (Asian Pacific Islander) umbrella. But we have our own island, our own language. We have a monarchy and a king.”
As she surveyed her community of fellow Tongans, it became clear that cultural preservation needed to start with the children. MALO held their first educational showcase in 2017, offering a welcoming space for kids to learn and practice the language, songs, traditional drumming and dancing. They invited teachers, law enforcement and community members to the enormously successful event, which was held annually until the pandemic brought it to a halt.
“It was incredible. You could feel our ancestors in the room,” Lolofi says. “We knew this was something we had to keep alive so our community members aren’t hiding a piece of themselves. We want them to feel comfortable singing out loud and speaking in their native language.”
What began as cultural preservation quickly turned into community service when COVID hit. The MALO team of volunteer board members pivoted to provide education, resources and door-to-door delivery of food and PPE to their community members. They sat in on county public health meetings, passed along updates through social media, and even gave out the money raised for their annual showcase to help local Tongans with gas or bills. Soon MALO was receiving private and public funding and became a trusted source of information for their community, hosting vaccine clinics for Tongans from the Inland Empire and beyond.
Although the educational showcase hasn’t yet returned, MALO serves close to 1000 Tongans and Pacific Islanders through backpack giveaways, free weekly Zumba classes, food distribution and holiday celebrations. “We invite everyone to participate, and we share whatever we have,” Lolofi says.
Recently, MALO held a community health and wellness fair that offered food, fitness, eyeglasses, mammograms, glucose testing and more. “We need to make these resources available to our community members who may not have access because of language barriers and immigration status,” Lolofi says. “COVID hit us hard because Tongans are prone to diabetes and other health issues, but they sometimes mistrust or don’t understand the health system.” In a recent survey, MALO discovered that 19 out of 100 local Tongans surveyed had never seen a doctor.
Soakai would like to see MALO gain a permanent meeting space for events like the educational showcase, and she says they could use staff to support the business side of running a nonprofit. “We have the “heart work” down,” she shares, “but we need someone to work on funding for programs that will help our families stay healthy and strong.”
“We’re continuing to develop what makes sense for our community,” Lolofi tells us, “and we’re not just sitting around talking about it. We’re acting on it. We look to our leaders within, in the past and to our future leaders, and we see our opportunities as blessings. And we’ve been very much blessed doing this work.”
Through IECF, MALO has received grant funding for COVID-19 messaging and the 2020 Census, as well as general support through the Bohon Family Community Fund. MALO relies on volunteers and donations to continue its services. For more information, visit https://malotongaie.org.
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