2019 People of the Year: Helping Hands

Extending a hand is a simple gesture that has gone a very long way for two women who set up a charitable group to help families of those affected by the measles epidemic. 

Eka Arp and Apuauro Faaofo of Lotopa are the driving forces behind a group, Helping Hands, which was established in November shortly before Samoa declared a state of emergency to combat the growing breakout of the virus. 

The mothers, who were cooking out of their own kitchens to feed, not just the sick at the hospitals, but also the health officials, found purpose and strength in helping those in need. 

The idea came together after photos of deceased babies circulating on social media; the images struck a chord in Ms. Arp’s heart and she felt she needed to act immediately. 

A single phone call from Ms. Arp expressing her concern to her aunty, Ms. Fa’aofo, led to the pair cooking up soup the very next day, which was also the first day of Helping Hands' existence. 

As a parent, Ms. Arp says she felt compelled to help the parents of children affected by the crisis and immediately reached out to them. 

“Sometimes people make little mistakes that can have big consequences and it doesn’t mean they are bad people,” she said. 

“They are going through a tragic experience and I put myself in their shoes and thought to myself what if that was me. I really wanted to do something and I’m not a doctor nor a nurse but there are other ways that we can help even if its just giving out water and cooking soup.” 

After the first day of delivery Ms. Arp saw their service was much needed by those afflicted by the virus. And so, a project that began with intentions of becoming a once weekly contribution became an all-consuming six-days-a-week operation over the past two months. 

Aside from daily food preparation, of, some days, almost 500 plates, the Helping Hands had also put together a small care package intended for children admitted at the hospitals.  

The work from the group created a ripple effect across the local and international community and rallied those who saw a nation progressively being ravaged by the outbreak. 

“There were so many people out there [who] wanted to help but didn’t know how to,” said Ms. Arp. 

“We provided an avenue and a place where they [could] come and help and make a difference. 

“We told people that they don’t have to give money in order to help; they can use their hands to clean, chop. That was how it turned out we had youths and people showing up and offering [to] help. 

“They don’t know the huge effect they had, because, without them, we won’t last this long cooking with some days 500 meals in one day.” 

The group was intended to provide a brief service to those affected but after the mothers saw their cooking would be needed longer than expected they decided to set up a Facebook page in order to focus the efforts of volunteers. 

Ms. Arp said it was also becoming expensive to feed so many people after a week and decided to reach out to those to those who needed help. 

For those that made it possible for the group to reach out to those in need and the volunteers who came from as far as Netherlands to assist Samoa in its fight against measles, Ms. Arp said they made everything possible. 

“There is a lot of tragedy that’s been happening but there is a lot of good as well,” she said. 

“It’s only times like this you see that alofa (compassion), how everybody treats each other as family and you see that during this time. 

“Out of all the time it had to be Christmas [that Samoa was facing the epidemic] and, although there was so much sadness, there was also happiness [for us] to have [the] friendship of those that came through [to help].” 

Previously employed as the Manager for the Pacific Games Village earlier this year, Ms. Arps, had to put some job offers on hold recently so she could continue to make the runs to the hospitals. 

Ms. Arp said Christmas is all about giving and the measles epidemic has shown that support and love from around the world is resonating back to Samoa. 

If there is one thing that she takes from the experience of helping those families affected it is to see the smiles of gratitude from the parents of the so many children hit by measles. 

“They get excited and they know the time we come to the hospitals,” she smiled. 

“They even recognise my van and our blue t-shirts and, as soon as they see us, you see their face just lights up and that feeling is the best feeling you can get.

“Knowing that what you are doing is needed and welcomed by people is the best feeling ever.” 

While Ms. Arps leads donations runs at the hospitals, she says she could not have done so without support from her aunt and friend, Ms. Fa’aofo. 

The-mother-of-two had converted her Lotopa home into an industrial kitchen to cater for 500 meals a day to supply the hospitals across Upolu. 

Aside from managing the kitchen and keeping account of donations, the stay-at-home mum is assigned with overseeing the Leulumoega district hospital supply. 

She has seen what she described as “many little blessings and miracles” in the past two months they have run Helping Hands. 

One day, a good samaritan dropped off pillows and bedsheets on their doorsteps as part of their donation and, a few minutes later, a call from the Intensive Care Unit asked for help with bedding.

Ms. Fa’aofo said the request from the hospital asked for 18 bedsheets and pillows for the children in the Intensive Care Unit.  

“So when Eka and the volunteers were counting the pillows and bedsheets from the woman that dropped it off was it was exactly 18 pillows and 18 bedsheets,” she said. 

“It was a miracle, there is no other word you can describe those things.” 

During her trips to Leulumoega hospital, Ms. Fa’aofo became attached to the children admitted at the facility. 

One memory that will always stick with her is when she offered to carry a heavily congested baby in the Intensive Care Unit so her mother could have a feed. 

“She was looking really tired and overwhelmed with her baby being sick with swollen eyes; the baby couldn’t stop crying,” she recalled. 

“I picked her up and I told the mother she can eat while I hold her and I was shocked when she started crying and I knew no one offered her that small but important help she needed. 

“I guess no one thought she needed it and it was a miracle that the baby stopped crying immediately when I held her and I could hear her breathing hard as she goes to sleep…” 

Seeing the sick babies everyday had taken a toll on Ms. Fa’aofo who could not go to sleep without thinking of them and seeing their faces. 

Her husband is often the one she turns to at night to share her experience from hospital each day. 

She also made it a habit to ask for the name of babies at Leulumoega hospital who were critically ill so she could text to her group of friends to remember them in their prayers. 

A baby boy by the name of Wayne is one whom she will never forget. He was in a critical condition. 

Ms. Fa’aofo said that, after visiting the hospital on that day, she came home with a “heavy heart” when she saw Wayne’s situation and had a feeling he was not going to make it. 

Helpless knowing she could not help the sick child, she reached out to her friends to pray for Wayne. 

“The next morning as I was responding to messages on our Facebook page there was a message from Wayne’s mother who send a photo of him surrounded with the gifts we gave out,” she said. 

“I asked her how he was doing and she told me it was his first day eating after six days of not eating and I started crying when she told me this because I was so worried about him. 

“And I strongly felt that this was the Lord’s way of letting me know that he was okay and will survive…” 

The mother said being able to help the affected families with the support of many volunteers and donations from businesses, individuals and those from overseas has been the highlight of her year. 

It has kept her on her feet but she says she would not have had this year any other way. 

The Helping Hands hopes to continue on helping until all donations it has received have been distributed.

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