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Team Effort for Samoa

Team Effort for Samoa

Sailivao Tusa Aukusitino Senio has been named Person of the Year 2023 by the Samoa Observer for his tireless work in The Salvation Army Addiction Services in the Samoa Region. But he says it’s a team effort—and there’s more work to be done. Ben Mack reports.

The warm weather, sandy beaches, crystal waters and green palm trees mean many people think of Samoa as paradise. But like anywhere else, there are challenges in living there. Among those challenges: drugs and alcohol.

But Sailivao Tusa Aukusitino Senio and his team at The Salvation Army are leading the fight against addiction, helping people from continuing down damaging paths that harm themselves and others, and offering hope for individuals and communities.

Senio says The Salvation Army is the only accredited alcohol and drugs addiction service provider in Samoa.

‘Unfortunately, people abuse alcohol a lot,’ he says. ‘You might go to church, be engaged in village activities, but alcohol turns you into a different person. The consequences can be lasting.’

A growing problem

Previously, there was little in the way of local programmes to support people struggling with addiction. ‘There were just no interventions, nothing was going to change by just locking people up.’

The roots of the programme go back to 2016. Senio was living and working in Auckland. He was contacted by New Zealand Justice Emma Aitken, who had been working in Samoa, to help set up an Alcohol and Drugs Court. ‘Back then, about 90 percent of the matters in court were alcohol- and drugs-related,’ he says. ‘There was nothing here [for treatment]. The only choice was to go to jail.’

He was born in Samoa but grew up in Christchurch and was in Samoa about a year before returning to Aotearoa. Then, about seven months after he came back, he was asked if he’d like to return to Samoa to continue the important work.

‘I was very happy to get the call and have the conversation … but I didn’t tell my wife (Natalie, with whom he has two children) for three months! But when she said yes [that I could go to Samoa], I was the happiest man on earth.’

Addiction Services programme

The Salvation Army Addiction Services programme has seen and helped nearly 1900 people in Samoa since 2018, mostly men aged between 20 and 39. There are group programmes, one-to-one counselling and programmes for people in prison.

Senio is a Drug and Alcohol Practitioners Association Aotearoa New Zealand (DAPAANZ) accredited and registered practitioner and clinical supervisor. He says that clients mostly come from the courts system. There are also church visits, and visits to schools, villages and more to raise awareness of the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the treatment options available if someone is struggling with addictions. ‘A lot of preventative stuff, education still needs to happen,’ he says. ‘Raising awareness, especially among the youth, is key.’

Most programmes are run on Upolu—Samoa’s most populous island, home to the capital Apia and the international airport and also where Senio and the team are based. But he says the hope is especially to reach other islands in Samoa, such as Savai‘i. The need for education and support, he says, is nationwide, no matter what island someone lives on.

Extending the programme

On the subject of reaching more people, Senio says a women’s programme was launched in February this year. It is run in prison; however, they also see women for one-to-one counselling, with some engaging in a group programme run at The Salvation Army’s premises in Vaivase.

‘We’re fighting for our people who are struggling with addictions,’ he says. ‘There’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s a big need.’ But he’s seen positive signs and had many positive interactions.

‘It’s always good to engage with churches, to talk to people about their roles as fathers, providers, family members, community members,’ he explains. Doing so, he adds, can remind people of their responsibilities—and how drugs and alcohol can make it harder to fulfil those responsibilities. ‘God is everything to people here, but there can still be temptations.’

Senio says one of the most rewarding parts of his work is seeing people overcome their addictions and reconnect with their family, church and community. ‘Every time someone graduates [from our programmes], they say a testimony about their experience. When they say they’re going back to church, re-engaging with their community, it really hits the spot. You realise it’s not about you. It’s about them, their families, their communities.’

Sailivao Tusa Aukusitino Senio.

Person of the Year award

Senio’s work has been rewarded in another way, too: this past December he was named Person of the Year by the Samoa Observer, the country’s largest newspaper.

‘I was wondering, “why me?”’, Senio says of finding out about winning the prestigious award. ‘But I was also really thinking of the team—my wife, family, the clinicians, and The Salvation Army in Samoa.’ He says, ‘The team really needs to be acknowledged. I was really representing the team [in receiving the award]. Especially my wife. If she didn’t say yes five years ago that I could come to Samoa, we wouldn’t be here. She was really behind the big push.’

Senio also says there’s still more work to be done. ‘God has a plan. He has a plan for everybody. And we’re here now because of that plan.’

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