Caring M’sians pull off miracle

Indomitable spirit: Valerie (left) and the boys posing for a picture at Sandakan Airport.Indomitable spirit: Valerie (left) and the boys posing for a picture at Sandakan Airport.

Folks raise over RM18,000 for teacher, pupils to make it to international competition

KOTA KINABALU: A recent incident in Sabah proved just how a seemingly hopeless and impossible situation can be turned around with the power of unity.

On Feb 28, a teacher and a group of five students were supposed to fly from Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur for the Hwarang Warrior International 2024 taekwondo competition.

The five students were Leonell Bellvin, 12, of SK Popok, Kota Marudu; and SMK Bongkol Pitas students Evan Filemon, 15, Deqqusyairi Jaafar, 15, Darren Michael Daholok, 16, and Erwin Daymiean Junaidi, 15.

However, their first flight was delayed, and they had only about 30 to 40 minutes left for their next flight.

“Our flight had a layover in Sandakan ... the timing was tight and we had to switch to another airline due to a lack of seats and other technical issues after purchasing our tickets,” said teacher Valerie Grace Peter Sompunodo.

Despite her persistent pleading and asking for ground staff to help and allow them to board the plane to Kuala Lumpur, they were turned down and told that the plane could not take in any more passengers.

“We were disappointed and devastated. We were late due to the delay but since the Sandakan airport is small, we thought there should not be any problem in letting us check in and board the plane because there was still time before the scheduled departure,” said Valerie.

She said the pupils she brought with her were from the rural part of Kota Marudu, one of Sabah’s poorest districts. She added that their parents had put a lot of effort into raising the money for them to go for this competition.

Not knowing what else to do, she shared her plight on social media which caught the attention of Riniejene Anthony, an entrepreneur known for her charitable endeavours.

Valerie and Leonell.Valerie and Leonell.

Riniejene shared that these students needed about RM18,000 for their flights, and asked if anyone was willing to donate.

In a matter of hours, she managed to get together that amount and a little bit more.

“I do not know these children but I know the feeling of disappointment. As a parent, I know what’s like to have worked so hard for something only to see those efforts end in vain,” she said.

Riniejene was also instrumental in helping search for available flights to get the children to Kuala Lumpur with their teacher because at that point, many seats were already sold out, and the competition started on March 1.

She checked for layovers and connecting flights and in the end, found enough to secure flights for all of them despite different times.

“I have to thank one wonderful Malaysia Airlines employee, Mahzan, who was also with me the whole time, assisting with flights and all. We both did not sleep,” she said.

“This shows how wonderful our Sabahans, Sarawakians and other Malaysian citizens are. Thank you, Malaysians,” Riniejene said, adding most of the donations which came immediately were from Sabah.

She even had her savings account barred earlier in the fundraising effort due to the continuous donations that came in, forcing her to use other avenues to get the money.

Eventually, the five boys and their teacher managed to get to the competition on time, with Leonell bagging a gold medal in one of the categories contested.

He has other ongoing categories to contend in, along with his other friends, with the competition ending today.

Valerie and the boys thanked all those who helped them throughout this journey and promised to try their best to make the country proud.

“We are truly blessed to be living in such a caring and helpful community. Thank you Rinie for assisting and all those who donated for us,” she added.

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