Sudden death of Rotorua schoolgirl Kimalyn Smith-Filipo leaves ‘gaping hole’ in community

Kimalyn Smith-Filipo was passionate about her Tokelauan and Māori heritage – and those cultures came together to mourn after the talented teen died suddenly.

Those who knew Smith-Filipo say she was warm-hearted, radiant, had a passion for Pasifika cultures and people gravitated to her.

The 17-year-old died suddenly on Friday after a “freak accident at home” and her death has left a”gaping hole” in the community.

Smith-Filipo’s uncle, Dana Smith, told the Rotorua Daily Post the family were devastated by the loss of such a “lovable child”.

The teenager, who was immersed in both her Tokelauan and Māori heritage, had been a “well known” leader among her people, he said.

She was an intelligent, goal-driven girl who fulfilled many of her dreams at a young age.

This included travelling to Hawaii to get a deeper understanding of her roots, and giving back to the community she was so proud of.

“Not many 17-year-olds set goals and had lived a life like she had,” Smith said.

Smith-Filipo aspired to become a teacher or join the police force, and planned to work towards one of those in her final year of school, he said.

Devastatingly, her life had been cut short, but she would have truly loved the way her two cultures had come together for her tangi, he said.

Hundreds of people including friends, peers, teachers and her church community turned out on Sunday night to support the family, share memories and console one another, before Smith-Filipo was taken on to Tūnohopū Marae.

She will be buried today at 10am.

Smith said the Tokelauan community had not been to the marae before and they wanted to ensure both Māori and Tokelau cultural practices were represented.

Pacific Island flags hung at half-mast and Tokelau mats filled the wharenui where Smith-Filipo lay. A church service was held, and a large celebration of her life followed.

Smith said the family had been warmed by the huge response of love they had received from the community and peers of Smith-Filipo.

Laurelle Tamati was the head of the Rotorua Girls’ High School marautanga faculty and had taken Smith-Filipo on the trip to Hawaii in 2018.

She described her as a “fun-loving, caring and respectful girl” with an “absolutely beautiful heart”.

“Everyone just gravitated towards her. She was so positive and warm.”

Tamati said Smith-Filipo’s death left a “gaping hole in our school” and everyone had “heavy hearts” at the news of her loss.

Tamati recalled a beautiful memory of Smith-Filipo when they were watching a Polynesian Water Show in Hawaii. When the Tokelau boat came out, she “went absolutely crazy with excitement”.

She said Smith-Filipo had such a fire and passion for her culture and “loved her island community”.

A tribute to Smith-Filipo was planned for the school’s welcoming pōhiri next year, with Tamati saying she would be the “guiding star of her Year 13 sisters”.

“We will never forget about her.”

Rotorua Girls’ High School principal Sarah Davis said the school community was “absolutely devastated” by the loss of a “well-loved” Year 12 student.

Smith-Filipo had Tokelau and Ngāti Whakaue roots and had been a treasured member of both communities within the school, Davis said.

She was a student at the school for four years and had been “incredibly popular”. She would have been one of the school’s leaders heading into Year 13, she said.

She said it had been beautiful to see Smith-Filipo’s heritage and the “combination of her two worlds” on display at the service.

The entire school’s thoughts and prayers were with the family, who were going through “everyone’s worst nightmare” after such a difficult year already, she said.

Something so tragic to happen right before Christmas was “just heartbreaking”, she said.

She said they were doing everything they could to help the family but “no words can do anything more than just being there”.

The school would be holding a remembrance service for Smith-Filipo next year when the students came back.

The Rotorua Girls’ High School Facebook page posted a tribute to Smith-Filipo that received more than 300 likes and a large number of shares.

Comments on the post included “Rest in love angel” and “Fly high my girl”.

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