May is Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month. To celebrate the cultures, activities include community festivals, government-sponsored events, and educational opportunities for students.
Though born on Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, Hawaii is home to this self-proclaimed “army brat.” For Renee Sedlak, growing up and attending school during her father’s three separate tours in the Aloha State enlightened her about her heritage.
Sedlak, an administrative assistant in the Regulatory Division at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Alaska District, is Hawaiian-Japanese on her mother’s side of the family and Lebanese-Irish on her father’s. Ultimately, her upbringing featured traditional Hawaiian holidays and cultural practices as a child. One of her favorites happens on May 1 with celebrations that include hulas and other activities paying homage to native Hawaiian culture, not to mention with an island’s worth of leis. The holiday is known as May Day, or Lei Day.
“It sets the precedence for the rest of the year to remind us of what we have there,” she said. “It takes us back to the beginning and reminds us there were simpler times.”
While following the path of her mother and sisters, Sedlak studied at Kamehameha High School on Oahu. Exclusive only to Hawaiians, the private school aims to teach children about their heritage. In order to enroll, she was required to prove her lineage and pass a test. However, there are always things you can’t learn from sitting at a school desk.
“Hawaiians love to eat,” Sedlak said. “We potluck all the time and one of the worst things you can do is turn down a Hawaiian who has invited you into their home and offered you food.”
Another practice to keep in mind is that Hawaiians take their shoes off before going inside the house, she said.
“Make sure you mark your slippers, so you know which ones are yours,” Sedlak said.
Life has brought Sedlak back to her birthplace as she works for the Alaska District. Being married to an active-duty serviceman poses the challenge of having to find new work after every permanent change of station. It also is a vessel for great opportunity as well.
While stationed in Biloxi, Miss., six months after Hurricane Katrina, she found employment in the safety department of a construction company rebuilding the Biloxi Bay Bridge. The natural disaster removed the structure, and debris still remained in the water when Sedlak arrived. The bridge is an important logistical connection between the cities of Biloxi and Ocean Springs. She was part of the team that rebuilt it in less than two years.
“It was an amazing feeling to put something back that had been completely destroyed by nature,” she said.
Sedlak will earn her psychology degree from Capella University next summer and dreams of helping other military families. In the meantime, it’s her fellow employees in the Regulatory Division that inspire her to come to work every day.
“I like what they do here,” Sedlak said. “I never thought about the protection of the environment prior to coming here. You kind of take it for granted.”
She and her husband have two children. Named after Sedlak’s mother, her daughter’s middle name is Nalani, which means “the heavens.” Her son is named after her grandfather with the middle name Kaupookua, meaning “the proud one.” It is tradition to pass the elder’s names to the children with their permission, she said.
The first thing Sedlak identifies with when asked of her ethnicity is Hawaiian. Coming from a rich cultural ancestry, she holds it in esteem.
“I’m proud of my heritage,” Sedlak said.