Phoenix Rising School Luau Brings Community Together

By Heidi Smith

Sunday, August 28th, 2011 4:30 p.m. The Hidden River Music Society, Rainier, WA

As the hula dancer finished her set with a stirring bit of audience participation, the drummers took over and the crowd began to drift toward the fire-pit, where a flurry of activity was taking place. Shovels flashed in the afternoon sun and gradually, the all-volunteer crew unearthed a large piece of canvas, which peeled back to reveal a layer of burlap sacks, greens, and eventually, banana leaves. Once all had been stripped away, there he lay, the focus of all the action, literally melting on the bone: Fred the luau pig had made his final sacrifice and was ready to be served to the nearly 200 supporters of the Phoenix Rising School that attending an unprecedented and hugely successful donor appreciation event. In total, the event raised over $7,000 in monthly donations and attracted thirty-one new donors.

Late April, 2011, Dining room table, Elbow Lake Rd., Yelm, WA

“I want to bury a pig,” announced Jeevan Anandasakaran. The PRS board member was known among the school community for his ingenious solutions to any financial or administrative challenges the school faced, but this sounded personal. “We could do an event as a thank you to our donors. Who wouldn’t want to go to a luau?” A simple idea, with a larger intent; Anandasakaran wanted to encourage everyone in the community to get on the PRS monthly giving program, a key to securing the school’s yearly operating budget. To make it work, 400 monthly donors were needed. At the time, only 42 were signed up. A luau would be a chance to not only appreciate those who had already signed up, but to also invite those who hadn’t to jump on board.

“I wanted to break the pattern,” he explained later, “to do something new and different, and show that everyone had the ability to give and that it does matter that this entire community gives. This is something that everyone can do, and getting people involved with their time and their money is important. I wanted people to see that it could be fun, and because it’s about getting people involved, it could be free.”

However, there was a catch: no one involved had ever done a luau before, nor did they have any idea of where to start.

July, 2011: Enter the Chefs

Chef Blue has worked full time for the last eight years as a remote location chef in Northern Canada at lodges and ski resorts, for adventurers on heli-skiing or sno-cat vacations. Self-taught, she’s been cooking since 1981 and while traveling for six years in Asia during her twenties, she developed “a good understanding of different cultures’ flavors.” Out of her many adventures, though, there’s one thing she’d never done: buried a pig.

So when she was asked to help create the luau, she immediately signed on. “I want to participate in the future of these children,” she said. “I also enjoy the company of the people who are running the board of directors and thought it would be interesting to work with them on a project like this.”

Dawn Young has been running Early Dawn’s Eatery at RSE events for over a year, and is well-known locally for her healthy and delicious meals. Although her two daughters attend public school, she is fully supportive of PRS. As she puts it, “The school embodies a dream that I’ve had for many, many years. I will back it and support it in any way that I can, regardless of my own children attending or not.”

Like Blue, Dawn had never taken part in burying a pig, “and always wanted to. I loved the idea of thanking people, and Jeevan’s sincerity in that. It was a new and brilliant idea.” She was also struck by the fact that he was functioning as an individual. “When I’ve been on a board, you couldn’t really do anything unless the whole board agreed and participated,” she said. “Here was one person who said, ‘I think this is a really good idea and I’m going to do it. If you want to participate, great. If not, no sweat.’ He just went out and did it independently. I’ve never seen that before.”

PRS Board member Jenny Bossick and local farmer Mari Mankamyer also signed on to cook, and the plan began to take shape. But one critical issue remained: still, no one involved had the expertise to properly bury and cook the pig.

August 20, 2011: The Semi-Reluctant Return of the Pig Masters

Steve Lewis grew up in New Zealand, where he was brought up with Maoris and exposed to their native tradition of hangis, which are similar to luaus. He began doing them himself around fifteen years ago, but eventually “got busy with other things. It was kind of ‘been there and done that,’” he said. Yet one dream remained unfulfilled. For years, he’d intended to work with Jay Sugimura*, a Hawaiian based in Lacey, Washington who had been doing luaus for years. “I’ve met Jay at RSE many, many times and we kept saying we’d get together,” explained Lewis.

When Lewis heard that Jay might be involved, that was enough for him. “I thought - this was the time. Let’s do it.” Coincidentally, Lewis has a rare bit of extra time available on the weekend in question, after nearly five years without a weekend off.

What Lewis didn’t know was that Sugimura had semi-permanently sworn off doing luaus. After almost thirty years of volunteering his expertise to help people create special events, he got burnt out. “I didn’t want to burn my weekends like that,” he said. “I lost a lot of weekends.” So when he was asked to help with this event, he was not enthusiastic. “Originally, my answer was no,” he said. “I finally agreed because my friend was involved, and then because it was attached to the school – that combination. When I found out it was for the school, I said, ‘Jeez. Okay.’”

August 27th, 2011, Hidden River Music Society

With everything now in place, including drummer Scott Nicolow and his friend signed on to entertain, as well as hula dancer Meli Pea, the crew began to prepare for the main event. Family members and friends, including Jonathan Bossick (husband of board member Jenny Bossick), PRS teacher Jonathan Wood, and Executive Director Aaron Rodriguez showed up to help dig the pig pit, and Ken Hayes ferried the keg and the pig back and forth in his truck. Sugimura and Lewis directed the preparations at the pit.

August 28th, 5:00 a.m., Hidden River Music Society

An alternately sleepy and giddy group gathered Sunday morning to light the fire and prep the pig, which had spent the night in an extra large cooler. They took turns watching the pit and making sure all the trees around it were sufficiently watered down. The chefs went home to cook, bathe and assemble the appropriate aloha attire for the party that would begin a mere few hours later.

August 28th, 2:00 p.m. – 10.00 p.m., Hidden River Music Society

They came, they saw, they ate poi. Nearly two hundred donors, both established and newly signed up, flooded the Hidden River site, attempted hula, and tried what was for some their very first taste of Hawaiian food. Aaron Rodriguez gave a speech so inspiring (despite being dressed in a grass skirt at the time) that the hula dancer decided to waive her fee. “I went to a school like this when I was growing up,” she explained. “I think it’s great.” Donors large and small continued to sign up at a table manned and womanned by Development Director Lauren Rodriguez, her sister, Development Coordinator Cailin Quirk, and William Christensen. The latter two were on hand to hand out leis and to donors and inspire donations.

“It was amazing to look out into the crowd of 180 people and see how many of them had leis on – how many were donors,” says Anandasakaran. “It was a beautiful day to see our community and how they support our children in such an extraordinary way.” The sentiment was echoed by everyone involved, in different ways. “In a larger sense, it established PRS as a hub for community,” said Rodriguez. “Our targeted goal was getting donation support for the school, but look how much it did for bringing a community together. That’s the bigger picture of what PRS is striving to become.”

According to Lewis, “It went absolutely superb. I’ve been to lots of them, and this was great.” Sugimura agrees. “It went awesome. I liked the people coming together and specifically certain people I would work again with. I got to see how people work under pressure.”

For Anandasakaran, a point was proven. “I believe that our community is capable of achieving great things and this was an opportunity to prove it. I believe this community could be a model for the future,” he said. “I think everyone has seen how enjoyable giving can be, and it only promotes more – people want to do it more. This is just the beginning.”

*Not his real name. He requested that we use a different name so that he won’t be swamped by people asking him to do luaus. He’s back in retirement, folks!

To learn more about the Phoenix Rising School, click here:

To donate, click here:


Please log in to post comments