Kentridge High School freshman Milanni Matautia really wants to ensure that people eat.
On trips to the grocery store, her grandmother would teach her the difference between the things she wanted and the things she needed to be healthy.
Food is one of those things Milanni knows not everyone has access to.
That’s why every time Milanni goes out to help others, she pictures children whose faces light up at the sight of food, kids less fortunate who simply get happy about a good meal.
“I think just even happiness about getting food is just such a wonderful thing to think about, because there’s a lot of people out there who aren’t satisfied,” she said.
Although she loves food drives for this reason, she’s also finding any way she can to give back to her community.
Milanni has participated in many volunteer and fundraising opportunities, acting as a leader in a number of these. She was also youth speaker for the WE Day Seattle this year on May 3.
Last year, Ryan Simpson, her eighth-grade leadership teacher at Northwood Middle School, was approached by WE Day Seattle, asking if he had any students who exemplify this idea of service and leadership. He knew without a doubt that Milanni would be the choice.
“I knew she was going to be on stage, and nervous leading up to it,” Milanni said. “But the rest of the class that was there knew she was going to knock it out of the park.”
Milanni and her former school, Northwood, received a grant from the Allstate Foundation Good Starts Young for a WE Volunteer Now project, for which her school sold Rafiki bracelets made by women in Ecuador. She sold about 100 bracelets last year at $10, the proceeds going to school supplies for teens and children in Ecuador.
She was a driving factor selling the Rafiki bracelets at Northwood Middle School for funding the We Walk for Water, Ryan said.
She was identified by Allstate Foundation as an all-star youth, and the foundation’s goal is to empower young people like Milanni to reach their full leadership potential.
Giving back to people was always important to Milanni, but she said it wasn’t until recently, in an eighth grade leadership class, that she was introduced to volunteer opportunities that she could do during her own time.
Ryan is an inspiration for her. She said he encourages students to get out their comfort zones and give back to the community.
“I think he’s just super caring and goes out of his way to help those he needs to,” she said. “(The leadership class) has really built the passion in my heart to speak up and go further with volunteering and giving back.”
Ryan said that within the first couple months he could tell Milanni was ready to go above and beyond in giving back to the community.
“Pretty much everything that was being created by myself and by other students, she was signing up for,” he said.
Each student is responsible for completing 20 community service hours for the year out of school. Milanni completed 49.75 hour just in class recording volunteer time, Ryan said.
He said she did everything from reading to kindergartners to working with WARM 106.9 Teddy bear patrol gathering and helping out with church groups and her church.
“She ran with what the class was all about: that idea of service and leadership,” Ryan said.
Milanni also fundraised for Out of the Darkness Walk, which helps fund suicide prevention support, a local food drive called the Turkey Trot, a walk-a-thon and even a birthday cake present for youth in the foster system to help enjoy having a birthday celebration.
“By December not only was she interested in service pieces, but how to serve her community because she signed up to help out at many workshops and conferences that we were a part of,” Ryan said.
Milanni said the work she does has inspired friends to do more.
“At school they’d say, ‘Wow you’re really pushing yourself to do more, and you’re really going out of your way to be there for every volunteering opportunity,’” Milanni said.
She said her family has always been very supportive. A child of deaf adults, she said her family has always been happy to see her giving her time to others and that they like to help alongside her, including her dad, who helped coordinate with We Volunteer on the We Volunteer project and grant.
Growing up in a family where they would be viewed as different by society, she actually learned not to look at anyone as different from herself, and that stands out with her interest in service, Ryan said.
“The thing that stands out with Milanni is that she would automatically connect with anyone and everyone. She had no problem with breaking the cliques and standard roles kids fall into in middle school,” Ryan said “Reaching out to kids who need it and taking those social risks.”
Ryan said part of his goal is to bring a more representative group of kids into leadership classes, and show that anyone can be a leader or in leadership classes. He said what he looks for as a teacher is that when a school year ends, they’re going to be better students and also running the program by the end of the class.
“Milanni is just the perfect example of what can be done when we invest in those students,” Ryan said. “I think as a community we need to recognize the importance of (leadership, character building and social-emotional learning), not just as something you add on top of everything else being taught, but a place upon which everything else is stacked.”
Milanni’s grandmother, who took her to the store and taught her needs and wants, also has a big passion for giving back to the world, and has a heart of forgiveness and love that Milanni learned from.
“I think she’s super loving and has taught me to love everyone,” Milanni said.
Milanni encourages kids and young adults interested in helping their community to get out there as much as they can.
“Don’t dwell on the tough times in life, because there are so many people out there that need your help. You can make such a big difference by just starting little, and kindness goes a long way,” she said. “Anything helps.”