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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Former BYU Football player and currant Philadelphia sports caster Vai Sikahema (left) hugs and kisses Choir member Siona Ika and fellow Tongan as he sits in with the Tabernacle Choir Thursday, April 7, 2011 as part of a shoot for his show.

SALT LAKE CITY — On the Pacific Islands, elders pass down their values and expectations while working alongside their children.

That's rare when they live in the United States.

"Here, dad goes to work. He doesn't have a good paying job, so he may be working two or three jobs. It takes away from their time with the children. We're not able to pass along in the same way the values that have been a strength to our families," said Hema Katoa, a licensed clinical social worker.

That shift to Western culture is putting some Pacific Islander youth in Utah at risk.

A Pacific Islander youth in Utah, according to a survey of student health and risk prevention indicators, is far more likely to use tobacco and smoke marijuana than same aged peers. Moreover, they're more likely to have shown up to school drunk or high, more likely to have been arrested and attacked someone with the intent of seriously harming them, according to the 2009 Student Health and Risk Prevention survey.

What may be even more perplexing is that these risk factors are present among cultures that, generally speaking, have profoundly strong family ties.

"We are an anomaly. The way it usually works is, when you have high protective factors, you have low risk factors," said Katoa, who is Tongan.

The results of the SHARP report will be further examined during a program on Wednesday intended to give Pacific Islanders culturally appropriate and proven strategies to address these and other issues affecting their children and families. The Deseret News is sponsoring the event.

"Navigating the Future" will be conducted at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, 15 E. South Temple, from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. To register online, go to NavigatingTheFuture.rsvpbook.com.

Vai Sikahema, sports director for the NBC affiliate WCAU in Philadelphia and former pro and BYU football player, will give the keynote address.

Sikahema was the first Tongan to play in the National Football League and was twice named to the Pro Bowl.

Mark H. Willes, president and chief executive officer of Deseret Management Corp., will offer opening remarks. Willes was president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Hawaii Honolulu Mission from 2001-04.

The evening's events, which are for adults only, will include a light dinner to be served at 5:30 p.m. followed by an opening prayer; remarks by Willes; breakout sessions on parenting, health, education and finance, and conclude with Sikahema's address.

Katoa, who works for the Jordan School District, said the numbers in the SHARP report need to be interpreted carefully. Pacific Islanders are at risk in certain areas, but they have large extended families that are highly invested in their well-being.

He hopes that parents who attend "Navigating the Future" walk away with proven and practical strategies that can make a significant difference in a child's life, something as simple as setting aside time each night to read with their children.

"We really hope parents take it home and try it. If it doesn't work, let's take it back and try something else," he said.

Pacific Islander families have deep love for their children and they care that they receive an education. The SHARP report also points out that Pacific Islanders have high degrees of religiosity and stable families, which help insulate children from risk.

Katoa, who is Tongan, said some of the stumbling blocks that Pacific Islander youth face are tied to transitioning to American culture. "We're still trying to find our fit," he said.

"Add in factors of poverty and lack of education, and those kind of things add up."

Sikahema, who also writes "Vai's View" for deseretnews.com, said he will speak on the importance of persistence.

"It took me 22 years to graduate from college. I was four or five months shy of my 40th birthday," he said. But he wanted to complete his degree because there was other unfinished business in his life that he couldn't do anything about as an adult.

"I went through the Scouting program and ended as a Life Scout, one step shy of Eagle, which is something that has bothered me all my life."

Sikahema, who immigrated to the United States from Tonga when he was 6 years old, said his family's early years in Mesa, Ariz., were difficult because his parents had struggled to learn English and they did not know how to help their children in school.

His parents both worked to make ends meet. Even at that, the phone, water and electricity were frequently out of service because they couldn't pay the bills. "We never had the electricity, water and phone running at the same. At least one of them was out or may only two of the three were running.

"When your life is that way, quite often, children's academics fall victim to that sort of chaos and instability."

Sikahema largely coasted through high school, except for an English teacher, who happened to be his mother's visiting teacher from church. She set and held him to high expectations. He credits the teacher, whom he describes as a "guardian angel," for setting him on a path to work in journalism.

Sikahema graduated from high school but struggled in college because he had had such poor preparation. He eventually completed his college degree to set an example for his own children. "I didn't want them to have any excuses," he said.

As for the struggles of today's Pacific Islander youth, Sikahema said they are much like any other immigrant group, torn between worlds and cultures and struggling with economic issues and a lack of education.

Some youth, who were born in the United States "don't seem to have an understanding of what it means to be Tongan or Samoan. For whatever reason, they gather in groups and act out in violent ways."

For youth that come from cultures that are so profoundly wrapped around the concept of family, it is disheartening that they create their own "subcultures" that put them at risk, he said.

Katoa said there's little point in reinventing the wheel in addressing these issues. There are many school-based and community resources to help youth with tobacco cessation, substance abuse and behavioral issues. Some parents need to be made aware of these programs. Likewise, the agencies that run these programs need to be aware of the specific cultural needs of the Pacific Islander community.

Ideally, the Pacific Island community will walk away from Wednesday night's gathering "unified" to address these issues, he said.

Sometimes, just a little bit of knowledge can enable mothers and fathers to be more effective parents.

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"If they don't know how to work a computer, how are they going to monitor what their children are doing on the computer? If you don't know what a marijuana leaf looks like and your son is wearing one on his hat, how do you know that's not appropriate?" Katoa said.

Once Pacific Islanders find strategies that work, Katoa says there is tremendous buy-in from parents and others in the child's large, extended circle.

"In our culture, there is a lot of love and tremendous respect for one another. We watch out for each other. You do feel loved and accepted." he said.

Email: marjorie@desnews.com