Lelea Fonua Strums Toward Stardom
Lelea Fonua is 12 years old, but he's already a successful musician with a budding career in reality television. He balances it all with homework, sports, and managing his type 1 diabetes.
Lelea, of Phoenix, was diagnosed at the age of 7. Learning he had diabetes was overwhelming for the youngster. "I felt pretty sad because I had to give myself needle shots every day," he says. But within a week of diagnosis, Lelea was giving himself all of his insulin injections, and he soon switched over to an insulin pump. "I was scared, but I got over it."
Going to an American Diabetes Association Diabetes Camp® just a few months after he was diagnosed really helped Lelea become more comfortable managing his diabetes. He participated in fun camp activities such as fishing, canoeing, and archery, and he also met lots of other kids who had diabetes, just like him. "I was the only one [with diabetes] in my school at the time," he says. "[But at camp] it felt normal, since everybody was diabetic."
While still learning to count carbohydrates, Lelea started acquiring another skill: music. He picked up a ukulele and, with no formal training, began to pluck out his favorite songs from the radio. His dad has helped him along the way, but in the past two years, Lelea has mostly taught himself to play his favorite radio hits, including songs by Plain White T's and Bruno Mars, putting a soulful twist on the popular jams.
When Anne Dennis, senior manager of mission delivery in Arizona for the ADA, approached the Fonuas and suggested that Lelea become a youth ambassador for the Association, Lelea thought he might be able to raise diabetes awareness through his music. He has performed at Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes® events, as well as the Father of the Year Awards in 2012. He's appeared in television news spots, crooning tunes and promoting ADA events. "My main goal as an ambassador is to spread awareness and fund-raise, and use my talents and gifts to [help] find a cure for diabetes," he says.
When you ask Lelea about his musical goals, his cheerful confidence shines through. "My goal as a musician is to become a superstar," he says. He may be on his way already. Lelea has sung at major- and minor-league baseball games, and has opened for major recording artists, including Alice Cooper and Guns N' Roses. In the fall, he'll be a mentor to other child performers on Step Up 2 the Mic, a talent contest on the fledgling cable channel Punch TV.
Sometimes the adrenaline of performing will elevate Lelea's blood glucose level, but he tests frequently to keep it in check. "My dad and my mom are really good support with my diabetes, my homework, and my music," he says.
But while he's busy with all the things your average middle schooler enjoys, it's music that makes him happiest. "It's just something that comes naturally to him," says Lelea's dad, Ben Fonua. "If he's standing around, he just sings, and he sounds great. And he's always plugging the American Diabetes Association. Even though his music is doing really well, that, to us as parents, is more important than his music."
Dennis appreciates that type of dedication in an ambassador. But more than that, she says, it's Lelea's ease with other people that really helps him reach out. "He is comfortable sharing his 'diabetes story' with all audiences, and he is confident," she says.
And Lelea hopes he can share his message with other kids with diabetes, whether through his music, on his YouTube channel, or face to face. "You have to stay strong and test your blood sugar often, and listen to your doctor and stay healthy," he says. "But it's all right to be diabetic."