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Entrepreneur Of Hope Sanya Ala’s Friends To Friends Program Bridges Doubt And Fear

Sanya Ala still gets teary-eyed when he thinks of Carl Maxey. The late Spokane attorney was his idol, Ala said, and his example gave him strength.

“If Carl Maxey could send two kids to law school during his time, any one of us can beat the odds,” said Ala, a native of Nigeria and a local entrepreneur. “You have to hold fast to something. You can’t just live. You can’t be selfish anymore.”

No one will fill the void that Maxey left, Ala said, but it’s important that people follow his footsteps by helping each other.

Weeks after Maxey’s suicide this summer, the owner of Sayla-Tec Inc. started rallying volunteers to help establish scholarships and purchase bicycles and other items for low-income kids in Spokane. Ala’s efforts culminated Friday night when he gave the gifts away at a banquet at East Central Community Center.

Dozens of children and their parents came. Most heard the news by word of mouth at local churches and community centers.

Sanya Ala became “Santa” Ala as children walked up to the podium to pick up $500 scholarships, McDonald’s gift certificates and other prizes for their work in school. The program is called Friends to Friends.

“Sanya really respected my father,” said Spokane attorney Bill Maxey, who has worked with Ala in the past. “This contribution to the community is his way of carrying on the legacy of Carl.”

Ala’s programs are for all children regardless of color. He eventually wants to host a similar banquet and giveaway in Colville to promote diversity there.

“We need to embrace everyone,” said Ala, whose own three children are biracial. “Anyone who discriminates against you wants your self-esteem and courage. You must look beyond that and prove yourself.”

People spend too much time complaining about race relations, he said. Prejudice exists in Spokane, he said, but the only way to fight it is by doing something positive - by getting the community together, from Spokane Police Department officers and community leaders to students and their parents.

“(Ala) is a very caring individual who believes hard work and perseverance will bring rewards,” said Wayne Brokaw, a friend and fellow businessman.

Ala moved to Spokane 22 years ago. He was 19 years old and received a track scholarship from Whitworth College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. In 1979, he received his master’s in business administration from Gonzaga University.

There, he found a mentor, Bud Barnes, the dean of Gonzaga’s School of Business. Like Ala’s relatives, Barnes encouraged Ala to start his own business several years ago. Sayla Tec, which distributes industrial and environmental safety equipment and works with local companies such as Kaiser Aluminum, began in the basement of Ala’s home. Now, sales have increased and the company has its own office in the Valley.

“As a foreigner, I take the best of my culture and the best of America,” said Ala, who became an American citizen this year.

When he came up with the idea to start his Friends to Friends program, Ala had a lot on his mind. Besides Carl Maxey’s death, he was also deeply affected by the rape and murder last year of 22-year-old Telisha Shaver. He befriended the Shaver family and spent countless hours listening to brutal testimonies in the courtroom this summer. One of the awards he gave out Friday night was in Telisha Shaver’s memory.

By helping the community, he helps himself, Ala said. He worries about his 10-year-old daughter, Titilayo, but he can’t always keep her at home, he said. That’s why he wants to make Spokane a healthy place to live for all children, he said.

“Consider (the program) an investment,” he said. “The happier society is, the happier I am. I’m going to reach out. I’m going to walk with everyone.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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