Antonio Piailug | Ocean Elder

Screen Shot 2020-10-23 at 5.14.44 PM


Pwo’ navigator Antonio Piailug has been fishing, identifying sea creatures, and practicing the art of traditional navigation since he was seven years old. He has spent many years sharing his knowledge of traditional boat building and navigation and is passionately committed to preserving this culture and skill through educating the youth.

Frances Sablan | Ocean Elder

Screen Shot 2020-10-23 at 5.16.26 PM


Frances Sablan grew up picnicking and fishing at the ocean’s shore with her family. Years of windsurfing and rod and reel fishing have left her with a deep respect for the waters of ocean, as well as a familiarity with the many species of sea animals that call our waters home. She believes that we need to protect our very valuable natural resources and empower our community with knowledge to conserve, preserve, and protect those resources for ourselves and generations to come.

Cecilia Selepeo | Ocean Elder

Screen Shot 2020-10-23 at 5.20.20 PM


At an early age, Cecilia K. Selepeo learned from her elders that the ocean heals, gives life, takes lives, and saves lives. An experienced fisherwoman, she uses a handline, casting net, and rod and reel to enjoy the fruits of the ocean without wasting or taking more than she needs. She has also voyaged into the world of traditional seafaring, sailing aboard the Okeanos Marianas and learning navigation skills from Carolinian master navigators. She intends to share her knowledge and value of the ocean because she believes that if we as a community do not take care of the ocean, we will lose our true identity.

Jess Quitano | Ocean Elder Coordinator

Jess Headshot

Program Coordinator

Jessielyn T. Quitano is currently pursuing her Associates in Science, under the Natural Resource Management program at the Northern Marianas College. She is an employee, a student, and a mother to two little farmer girls. Jessielynn was born and raised on a farm in Asteo, Saipan. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about proper management of our natural resources. Initially joining HOPE as an intern, she now coordinates HOPE’s Ocean Elders and is involved in other areas of the Friends of the Mariana Trench.

Joe Villacrusis | Project HOPE Program Coordinator

Joe Villacrusis

Project HOPE Program Coordinator

Joseph Villacrusis, better known as “Joe” – worked professionally in the banking industry for over 7 years before becoming a classroom teacher with the CNMI Public School System for 11 years. Holds an Associates in Applied Science – Business Management and a Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition Science – Dietetics. Currently enlisted with the U.S. Army Reserves for 13 years. Participated in the 2010 Micronesian Games in Palau for the CNMI Men’s Basketball Team. Physically active in the community participating in events such as the Saipan Marathon and various running events, American Red Cross Walk-a-Thon, and beach clean ups. An entrepreneur running a small business, selling merchandise to help with ocean conservation and protection. Company name is Salty Skin Pacific, LLC.

Bekke White | Admin. Assistant

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 2.20.55 PM

Administrative Assistant

Rebecca C. White is from Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands. She is a Northern Marianas College graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Management. She is the Office Manager for The Law Offices of Michael A. White, LLC. She spent the early part of her career doing collections and secretarial work before transitioning to Office Manager. The best part of what she does is being able to work closely with her staff in ensuring efficient office operations and optimizing workflow to better assist the office’s clients and debtors. She enjoys her role in the Office because it allows her to challenge herself professionally and personally by being task-oriented and balancing the duties and responsibilities required as the Office Manager, like dictations and transcriptions and administrative organization. Working with the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument (FOMT) is a perfect opportunity for her to gain new skills and better improve her work experience.

Mike Pai | Accountant

Screen Shot 2021-05-14 at 3.26.17 PM


Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Michael has been a resident of the CNMI since 1983. He served two terms as the CNMI’s Public Auditor from 2008 to 2020. Prior to that, he was the partner in charge of the Saipan office of the international auditing firm of Ernst & Young. In his career, Michael has held various accounting, finance, and management positions in Hawaii and in the CNMI. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and is a Certified Public Accountant, no longer in public practice.

Joleen Salas | Executive Assistant / Project Coordinator

Screen Shot 2021-05-14 at 3.19.36 PM

Executive Assistant / Project Coordinator

Joleen Togawa Salas is a University of Hawai’i at Manoa alumni holding a Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on Organizational Behavior. After graduation, Joleen remained on O’ahu to work at nonprofit organizations that focused on youth development. Upon returning back to the CNMI, she’s found work in project management and now joins Friends of the Mariana Trench bringing along her passion for community development. Outside of work, Joleen enjoys an active lifestyle, from practicing jiujitsu, to gardening and learning how to spearfish.

Laurie Peterka | Executive Director

Laurie Peterka

Executive Director / Co-Founder

A 25-year CNMI business professional with an impressive history of concurrent community service through a wide range of local nonprofits. Laurie co-founded several local NGOs including Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument (FOMT), Island SK8 Society, the Northern Mariana Islands Volleyball Association, and the Pacific Ombudsman for Humanitarian Law. In the last 15-years she has worked closely with indigenous community groups and top-level leadership in six different countries throughout the Pacific Islands in establishing various marine protected areas. In addition to being FOMT’s current volunteer Executive Director, she is a founding member and largely responsible for driving the FOMT projects accomplished during 2017-2020. For the last 14 years, Laurie has actively engaged in analyzing and problem solving for nonprofits and curating solutions through grant proposal writing, grant management, organizational development and capacity building. Laurie is a graduate of Northern Marianas College and holds a Bachelor of Science in Management degree from University of Phoenix.

Project HOPE Returns for Spring!

The Friends of the Mariana Trench (FOMT) are excited to announce that student registration has been extended to April 9th for Project HOPE (Healthy Ocean & People Empowerment), an ocean science program for CNMI sixth graders funded by a grant from the Administration of Native Americans (ANA) and made available through a partnership with PSS.  There is no cost for student participation. Registration is open through April 9th. Orientation will be held April 12th and is mandatory for all participants.  Learning will begin on April 19th.

Project HOPE learning sessions will take place weekly for approximately 8 weeks of activities. ENRO students together with ocean elders will work closely with outreach Specialists that will engage 6th graders in six-hour hands-on learning sessions every Monday at the Guma Sakman in Susupe. Students will also participate in a stewardship project of their own creation, which will span the duration of the program. Project HOPE will conclude with week-long ocean camp held June 14-18 in coordination with MINA and 500 Sails.

“The goal of Project HOPE is to make a crucial and complex subject like ocean conservation more accessible to our students,” said FOMT Executive Director and Project HOPE Director Laurie Peterka. “We believe that by creating fun, hands-on ocean science activities and incorporating local community members from multiple generations, we can help our students envision themselves as the CNMI’s next wave of ocean protectors.”

Project HOPE learning teams consist of Ocean Elders, college students and 6th graders. FOMT is pleased and grateful to acknowledge those who are continuing or joining us for our second cohort. Returning for a second round in our ocean elders circle we welcome back Antonio U. Piailug, Joseph A. Omar, and Frances Sablan and joining us for Spring will be Oscar Sablan and Tony Pangelinan. In support of our ocean elders, Project HOPE sessions will be facilitated by NMC Environment & Natural Resource Organization (ENRO) students Dhalian Alvarez Salas, Catherine Tanseco Calma, Eloise Lopez, Anela Duenas, Richelle Ramon, and Mathew Richardson.

“I want to thank PSS principals and science teachers for working diligently alongside FOMT to ensure that students and parents can easily register for Project HOPE,” added Project Coordinator Joseph Villacrusis. “Anyone interested in registering can contact FOMT or find the appropriate information and forms on the FOMT website.”

Inspired by the desire to improve our 6th graders’ ACT Aspire test scores, Project HOPE uses experiential learning to increase students’ understanding of experimental results, inferences, evaluation of models and analyzing data. Our weekly ocean science learning sessions also combine traditional cultural methods and STEM principles to promote ocean conservation stewardship; local elders with a lifetime of ocean expertise participate in ocean science activities right along with CNMI 6th graders.

Weekly engagement sessions as well as the ocean camp are structured with appropriate social distancing protocols in place to protect all participants’ health as much as possible. Our COVID-19 protocols are based on CDC, CHCC Public Health and PSS guidelines. These guidelines worked well in our Fall session and we are confident that they will continue to serve the needs of our program, especially protecting all the individuals involved.

Because the global outbreak of COVID-19 prevented FOMT from initiating the program in Spring 2020 as planned, the Project HOPE Fall 2020 program was open to 7th grade students (SY 2019-20’s 6th graders) and our Spring 2021 program is for 6th grade students.

You can obtain information from your school’s principal or contact Joe Villacrusis at (670) 483 – FOMT (3668). For more information, you may also visit our website at or email us at