Medallion of Initiative Recipient: Makena Neuman, of Great Oak High School
Speech given: Can-Do Day, March 7, 2015
Introduction given by Mrs. Sue Weaver:
We as a Board of Directors of Friends of Ronald Reagan have had the privilege to bring to this podium some very outstanding young people with extraordinary personal Can-Do stories to tell. We select one senior or junior each year to win a Medallion of Initiative and a $500 scholarship. Then we invite them to speak to us on Can-Do Day and to represent us at various functions including the July 4th Parade.
Makena Neman’s story had particular appeal to me because … here is a girl, a Great Oak senior, who is doing something really different for her community. Something not many her age have even thought to do. But she didn’t just wake up one day and have it fall into her lap. Her story is one of: Dream, try to put dream into practice, fail, … Dream again, try to put dream into practice, fail again. Did she quit dreaming? Give up? Did she say … “I can’t do this! Nothing’s working out!” or, listen to the advice of someone near and dear … and try again?
Today I have the pleasure to introduce Makena Neuman founder and C.E.O. of Me Ke Aloha Foundation which has partnered with the City of Temecula to offer a dance program committed to assisting boys and girls with special needs by developing their highest potential through the art of dance. The hope is to inspire self-expression, self-esteem, socialization . . . and fun! Boys and girls, moms and dads, I invite to hear an inspiring story. Makena, I invite you to the podium to share your story with us.
Good Afternoon. Several people have demonstrated the meaning of personal initiative in my life; one person in particular is my grandfather. He, more than anyone, had to persevere through difficult circumstances—and he taught me opportunities are not rights, they are privileges. To me, personal initiative means to try, try again, no matter what obstacles or failures present themselves. Just push through and keep going. Here is my story.
Ever since I was little, I have had a special place in my heart for people with special needs. I was first introduced to the world of special needs at a very young age. My best friend growing up has mild autism, and one of my cousins has cerebral palsy. When school came around, I interacted easily and willingly with the special needs students in my elementary classes. Since I was little, I have also had a passion for dancing; especially Hawaiian dancing. I am actually a quarter Hawaiian … yes, blond hair and all. I have been Hawaiian dancing for as long as I can remember and I love it. During my freshmen year of high school, I came to my mother and told her that I wanted to leave my school a better place than I found it. She suggested I combine my passions of Hawaiian dancing and kids with special needs.
With that said, I took the initiative and started a pilot program teaching girls at my school with special needs how to Hawaiian dance. With the help of our family friend, Mr. Miranda— a special needs instructor at my high school, the idea was presented to the Director of Special Needs and the Principal, as well. I was given the green light and started teaching the girls during my lunch break twice a week. I wanted them to be able to showcase their talents and have the opportunity to perform, so I signed us all up for the annual school talent show. I later found out that Administration was skeptical about their performing, because they were worried about the possibility of the girls being made fun of.
I could understand; because, there was no precedent for this program at our school, and those in authority were worried about how the special needs students would be received. There was also the possibility of the students not wanting to participate! This could happen while on stage—they could look at the audience and run. After all, they would be performing something in a foreign environment … and in front of hundreds of people. I knew these were the risks, but I had confidence in them; and luckily, so did they! Since they were all very excited about the performance and their parents were extremely supportive of it, we went ahead with the idea.
There were some sensory things to be aware of during the actual show. I had to make sure that the lights were not too bright, the music not too loud, and that we had our own separate dressing room. When the day came, we gathered on stage. The music came on, and we started our Hawaiian dance. I wondered what the reaction would be, but when we were done, all I could hear was a roar of cheers. The girls were met with such support from students, parents, and Administration … some were even crying. That really touched my heart –and the girls were the only ones to get a standing ovation in the whole show! After our performance, one of the girls came up to me and said, “I feel popular now.” That said it all for me! I was not just their instructor, I was a part of them, I was one of them, and we were our own little family.
Seeing those girls have so much fun, I wanted to do this in a bigger way. I decided to start my very own non-profit foundation to make it happen. My initial goal was to be able to reach out to other girls in the community and give them the same opportunity. In December of 2011, the Me Ke Aloha Foundation was formed. I chose this Hawaiian phrase for the name because it means “with love,” and the phrase “let us work with humbleness” as my motto. I had two years of teaching the girls under my belt and was gearing up for my third. My junior year of high school came along and I thought I would pick up where I left off with my program. I created routines and was ready to teach; but obstacles presented themselves.
For reasons I didn’t understand, the school canceled the program. I was so disheartened. I was very discouraged and confused as to what could have happened for this all to come to an end. I wondered, “Should I even be pursuing this idea at all?” So, I decided to redirect my energy and explore other activities. I tried out and joined the dance team at my high school, and became more involved with other school activities. At the end of my junior year, I decided to take a leap of faith and try out for the dance team again for my senior year. … I unfortunately did not make the team. I know, not making the dance team at your high school isn’t the end of the world, but it was a failure in my eyes.
Here I was, I couldn’t go forward with my special needs dance class at school and I couldn’t go forward with my high school dance team! Then the person that I look up to the most, my mother, came to me with such kind words and advised me to “take the negative and turn it into something positive." And that is what I did! I was bound and determined to turn my negative into a positive. My mother told me, “Timing is everything; maybe this is the right time to make your foundation a success.” And believe me, I know that everything happens for a reason. I forged ahead and in June of 2014, the Me Ke Aloha Foundation partnered with the city of Temecula offering classes to those in the community with special needs. Because I am a non-profit, my overall goal was to always offer my classes for free, and the city of Temecula embraced that and partnered with me.
The city graciously donates the facility, advertising, and anything else that pops up throughout the year to make my classes a success. I teach two classes, Hawaiian and hip hop, two days a week at the Mary Phillips Senior Center. My two classes are divided into youth; ages 11-17 and adults, ages 18 and up. Actually my oldest student is 67 and she gives me a run for my money! I truly have the best job in the world; my students bring a smile to my face and warmth to my heart every week. The foundation has performed at several events including the Down Syndrome Association of the Inland Empire Buddy Walk, and events at the Rock Ridge Church. We also had our very own Christmas recital, and we are so excited to be having another recital this spring.
Every week I have watched my students grow as individuals. They are developing life changing and necessary skills, and of course having fun! The role of teaching these students means the world to me. My wish is to spread my foundation nationwide. My dream is to open up many studios, providing instruction where people with special needs can go to explore activities previously unimaginable to them. I chose to stay local for college and have been accepted into Cal State University San Marcos, so that I could still continue my dance program and be with my students.
I have always had an amazing support system, of family and friends who have believed in me, encouraged me, and helped me along the way. One of my biggest supporters and sources of inspiration has been my Hawaiian instructor for the last 13 years, Mrs. Aileen Manalili De-villa. When I told her about the Me Ke Aloha Foundation, she found time in her schedule teaching Polynesian dance with Vylanis through the City of Temecula, to volunteer her time and help with my weekly classes. Vylanis even offered to let my students join them in their annual winter recital which is a roaring success.
Another source of inspiration to me, as I stated earlier, has been my grandfather who taught me to cherish the fact that I live in a free country and can have opportunities like this. My grandfather was born in a Relocation Camp. Let me explain what that is for the younger set in our audience. During WWII, while we were at war with Japan, Japanese-Americans were relocated from their homes and were confined in makeshift rural areas, because Americans weren’t sure where their loyalties lay. My grandfather is a second generation Japanese descendant, and when I was about to get my driver’s license he said, “Don’t ever forget how lucky you are to be born in this country. When you are given the right to obtain a driver’s license at age 16 and at 18 the right to vote … don't look at them as rights, look at them as a privilege and an honor; because, that's what they are, and there are people who came before you who have fought for those privileges, and I don't want you to ever forget that.”
I know we flourish as a country because of freedom. We enjoy this freedom, as my grandfather said, because people fought for it. Opportunity is not a right. It is a privilege and we should never take these freedoms for granted. Living in a free country, we are able to earn our own success and I am learning you can do anything you set your heart and mind to, if you’re willing to work hard and not be discouraged by obstacles.
. . . I want to thank the Temecula Friends of the Ronald Reagan Foundation committee for offering this opportunity to individuals my age and for selecting me for the 2015 award and thank you, for allowing me to share my story with you; it truly was an honor and a privilege!