SALT LAKE CITY — Siaosi Heimuli was only 13 years old when his father died of a stroke.
The tragedy forced the teen to shoulder responsibilities meant for someone much older: Caretaker for his elderly grandparents. Role model for his little brother. Support system for his ailing mother.
Now 15 years old and a freshman at Granite Park Junior High School, Heimuli was honored Monday with Granite School District's Absolutely Incredible Kid award at a surprise schoolwide assembly.
Schoolmates whooped and Heimuli's little brother ran up to hug him, crying, as district officials announced the news.
Teacher Keri Graybill called Heimuli a "gentle giant" and humble student who has come out of his shell over the past two years.
Graybill became Heimuli's teacher when the teen joined the AVID college preparedness program. She continues to mentor him through the Latinos in Action program, where he tutors preschool Head Start students.
"He's always concerned and aware of other people," Graybill said, adding that Heimuli is popular among students for his kindness and patience.
"He has his vision for life, and I know it's going to happen because he works for it," she said.
Wearing a Chartreuse jacket he sewed himself, Heimuli wiped tears from his eyes as he accepted gifts from sponsors, among them sewing books, a sewing machine, passes to Seven Peaks and a 2-in-1 laptop and tablet.
When district officials presented him with the final gift — a $1,000 scholarship from the Granite Education Foundation — Heimuli pulled his T-shirt over his eyes.
"I almost fainted," Heimuli said later. "I'm always thinking, 'Why me? There's plenty of students here.' But I'm very grateful to take this chance and get this award."
To hear Heimuli tell it, the teen spends most of his days going to school and taking care of his family. That includes cooking dinner every night, leading the family in prayer, visiting his mother in the hospital and looking after his grandparents' finances.
Heimuli said his grandparents took the family in after his father died, preventing them from becoming temporarily homeless. He helps them pay their bills and translates for them when needed.
"I'm just grateful to learn from them," Heimuli said. "I'm doing this because we learn from the struggles of our parents, from learning from different backgrounds."
Heimuli's passion is sewing and design — a pursuit that he said his relatives didn't approve of at first but later accepted after seeing him break needle after needle without being deterred. Heimuli now sews his mother's Sunday church clothes every week, he said.
Next year, Heimuli will transfer to Taylorsville High School. In the future, he plans to attend Utah State University to study business, interior design and fashion.
Heimuli said his goal is to stay humble and honor his father.
"When you fall, you have that inner side of yourself telling you you can't do stuff," Heimuli said. "But when you start taking chances, every opportunity builds your self-esteem. And it keeps going, no matter what."