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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Hilo student receives diploma at 43

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — Of all the proud graduates who are lining up for their high school diplomas, perhaps none went through a string of trials and errors quite like those of Joshua "Sosiua" Alatini.

Joshua "Sosiua" Alatini, 43, of Hilo will receive his high school diploma next month through the Hilo Community School for Adults. He plans to return to the landscaping business, where he will use his education to run the office.

Kevin Dayton • The Honolulu Advertiser

As the oldest of six children, Alatini, now 43, quit school in Tonga to support his family after his father died when Alatini was 14. He later moved to Hawai'i, built a landscaping business despite not being able to read, got married and bought a house in middle-class Makakilo on O'ahu.

A tree-trimmer for 25 years, he suffered a back injury after a falling tree trunk pinned him against the side of a dump truck. He kept working for a time, but he later aggravated the injury while carrying a can full of dirt and became disabled.

More bad years followed. He began smoking methamphetamine and lost his house and business. He separated from his wife, Sandi, and was jailed for drunken driving. He was abandoned by frustrated family members and targeted for deportation by immigration authorities.

His graduation from Hilo High School next month will be a major milestone in his trip back to a clean and sober life. But before he got there, he had to put aside his pride and learn to read.

"It was hard," Alatini said. "You know, you're old. I was ashamed of myself because of my age. It's really hard for me to describe the feeling. ... I think, 'I'm old enough to know everything; what is there to learn?' "

Employment and rehabilitation counselors say it is not uncommon for people in landscaping, construction or other trades that involve hard labor to suffer disabling injuries as they approach middle age. Because they worked with their hands, some don't have the academic skills they need to launch new careers. Unless they return to school to acquire skills as basic as learning to read, they may not be able to support themselves again.

To donate

The Computer-Assisted Learning Center provides one-on-one tutoring for adults. It is a project of the nonprofit Hawai'i Library Foundation and is financed entirely from private donations. To donate or for information, contact project manager Kit Holz at calchilo@verizon.net.

Before he was injured, Alatini got around his illiteracy with help from his uncle, who would explain in Tongan the paperwork for his business.

At home, Alatini's wife — the two have reunited — would go through the mail for him, balancing the checkbook and scrutinizing the bills. After she finished with her day job working for the state, she would handle the paperwork and payroll for his yard service business.

"I had to ask her everything because I don't know," he said. "Now, man, she is so happy I don't have to ask her everything."

Alatini cleared up his legal problems with the help of his wife and turned to his religious faith to help fight his drug problem. In 2000, a counselor steered him into a tutoring program based at the Hilo Public Library called the Computer Assisted Learning Center.

He worked with a tutor at the library in the daytime and took night classes at the Hilo Community School for Adults.

It took him almost two years to get his high school equivalency diploma, and now Alatini reads with understanding.

"By the time I get my high school diploma, man, I can read the book and just right after that I can close the book and just talk to you and tell you the whole story," he said. "I never did before, never did."

He predicts his upcoming citizenship exam will be a snap. Although he won't be able to return to the heavy work involved in landscaping, he said he's ready to handle other aspects of the business.

"I know I can't do the job, but I know I've got the skill that I can train people to do it, and then I can just run the job," he said. "I can read, I can do the bidding, I can figure out a lot of things."