HOMETOWN HERO | James Itaya: Answering the call to action

Actions, not mere words, are what defines the reputation and character of a person, according to James Itaya, a South Whidbey High School senior.

James Itaya is this year’s South Whidbey High School Hometown Hero.

Actions, not mere words, are what defines the reputation and character of a person, according to James Itaya, a South Whidbey High School senior.

It’s a philosophy that’s paid off with notice from school leaders.

”James is a respected leader amongst his peers as he leads by example and not with his mouth,” said Gary Peterson, South Whidbey coach. “I have had the privilege of coaching James in soccer for many years, and he always gives 110 percent. He cares deeply about what is good for his friends, his teammates, and his community.”

Peterson added he also knows Itaya as one of his son’s best friends, and someone who is always willing to jump in and help anyone.

“James is a humble, hardworking, caring young man whose actions equal his words,” he said.

Itaya chalks it up as simply this: what people do is more important than eloquent words. While people may forget kind words, kind actions are remembered, he says.

“Whenever I have done something wrong, my dad calls me out on it,” Itaya said. “When I tell him I’m sorry and that I won’t do it again, my dad says, ‘Just remember actions speak louder than words.’

“My dad trusts me to do the right thing, but he also expects me to back up my promises with actions. His attitude has helped me become a guy of actions.”

Itaya added that he is fortunate to have grown up in a loving family. He credits his mother with being the smartest person he’s ever met, and his dad the hardest working.

“They are both my heroes,” he said.

Itaya greeted a South Whidbey Record freelancer at the door with his dog Kaysie, a friendly Irish setter, at his side. He offered refreshments, and took her into a parlor room to talk. He started out saying, “I was an obnoxious kid. No, really, I was. I think being the youngest I might have felt entitled, or spoiled.”

When he was nine years old, the family went to California to visit Disneyland and SeaWorld and all of the sites.

“I didn’t even show gratitude — what a brat,” he recalled.  But Itaya began to grow out of it by middle school, with his thoughts turning away from himself and toward others.

“I think we can all be some kind of hero if we strive to care more about others more than ourselves,” he said.

Itaya said he’s always felt insecure, because his parents and siblings are all intelligent and accomplished.

“I just know I have to work very, very hard at anything I want to accomplish,” he said. “When I started ballroom dancing, I got my mojo working for myself, and started working hard at honing some skills. I hate the word ‘confidence.’ People say the word like we just need to believe it and we will have it. But ‘it’ comes from who we are and what we do.’ ”

He added that people don’t just get their “mojo” from their wins — they can also obtain self-reliance from how they can accept their failures. He once broke his collarbone and couldn’t play in the nationals both for soccer and dancing. Then in that same year he lost his bid for class president.

“I had to learn to deal with losing and disappointments, and I think this made me a stronger person for it,” he said.

Varsity soccer coach Emerson Robbins remembers when Itaya broke his collarbone. At the time, he was heading to a national dance competition in which he was the favorite to win. Itaya had trained for a year, traveling on the ferry several times a week or more — doing his homework on the way — to practice ballroom dancing and often getting home late at night. On the eve of the competition, Itaya was injured in a game and was forced to miss the contest he had worked so hard for.

“I felt so bad for him, yet I found his attitude astounding,” Robbins said. “He refused to be down. He subsequently came to practices in a cast for the remainder of our season and could not have been more helpful to me, or more supportive of his team.  He is determined to be successful and yet never at another’s expense. He is a team player all the way. James Itaya is a Hometown Hero.”

Itaya said he’s fortunate to have the role models he does, and that he welcomes comments or opinions about how to improve. Criticism pushes him to do better, and gives him direction, he said.

Itaya feels he’s supposed to become a doctor, and is leaning towards pediatrics.

“I want to help people every day, and this is a way I feel I can do it,” he said. “I’ve thought about this, and to pay for the education I will join the military, air force if I have the choice. I don’t want to be weighed down with a lot of school debt.”

Josh McElhinny, a close friend of Itaya’s and a junior at South Whidbey High School, said, “James is a great, loyal, inspiring young man with a friendly, honest demeanor and a big grin wiped across his face.”

He credits Itaya for the many things he does for the community, from volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and putting on school programs as an Associated Student Body officer to greeting the high school with a “warm, open voice over the intercom every morning.”

“He is the type of person this generation needs more of,” McElhinny said. “He is a shining example of the determination and intelligence someone our age needs. He balances a busy life with religious and social commitments, athletics, academics, and extracurricular functions.”

He added that Itaya is loyal to a fault, has your back in a pinch, and is always there to help a friend when they’re feeling down.

“He’s a kind, gentle, fun-loving guy who’s got his heart and mind in the right place, and an invaluable member of our community, and a guy that is called to action.”


“James is an admirable, intelligent, and gracious human being. He would do anything on behalf of another. He is compassionate, kind and collaborative, until he gets on the soccer field, the wrestling mat, or the dance floor — then you really don’t want to mess with him. He is fiercely and unabashedly competitive. I have very much enjoyed watching James growing into being such an extraordinary young man.”

Scott Mauk, Clinton resident and Edmonds Heights K12 principal


“The community is better off with James because he is a person who is always looking to better himself, through his acts of service and his desire to see the best out of those around him. James is guided by a sense of purpose and potential, and at the same time an immense sense of humility. He looks for answers because he wants to be the best he can be. As he asked questions I began to see him grow in his faith, which translated to him asking questions of how he can better treat those around him and how he could show his faith in a non-judgmental, authentic and loving way.”

Ernie Merino, Young Life Area Director


“I think the most inspirational characteristic I’ve watched develop in James is his deep commitment to helping others.  As a little kid and the youngest of five children, James was happy to let everyone else perform daily tasks on his behalf. Then by middle school, he began to pitch in and do more than was expected. That’s probably when his value system began to take shape. By the time James hit high school, he really began to take personal initiative; he now offers his assistance at church, school, and in many community organizations as well. James actually pushes himself and makes daily decisions to help others. I’ve seen it many times.”

Beth Itaya, James’ mom and Wellington School director and founder


“James is a highly motivated young man. As an Associated Student Body executive officer, he does the work behind the scenes to make South Whidbey High School a great place for our students. He organizes student activities, is involved in many clubs such as National Honor Society, Key Club, Interact Club, Green Team and the Outdoor Club. James was also a page for the Washington State House of Representatives. He also is a talented soccer player and National Champion Ballroom dancer. His future goal is to become a doctor; I have no doubt that he will achieve this goal. South Whidbey High School is a better place because of James Itaya. We will miss his big smile and positive attitude.”

John Patton C.T.E. director, principal


“James Itaya is simply one of the most sincere and fierce kids I have ever coached. He is honest, fun to be around and if only I had him for his freshman and sophomore years, he could have been a state wrestling placer. Please give me more students like James to coach. What a great young man.”

Jim Thompson, South Whidbey wrestling coach

More in Life

Need ideas for book lovers?

Librarians offer gift suggestions for all ages, interests

Making art to make a difference

Gerber, Hudson continue their seasonal fundraising tradition

All photos taken by Whidbey Camano Land Trust
Habitat restoration underway at preserve

Whidbey Camano Land Trust working to save forest, habitat

Tiny home project has big need

An idea for a tiny-house development is starting with a regular-sized home.… Continue reading

Learn how a trombone toots and a drum rolls

Saratoga Orchestra presents annual ‘Petting Zoo’ with holiday concert

Photo by Maria Matson/Whidbey News Group.
                                South Whidbey veteran Jill Johnson holds her miniature poodle, Sophie.
Veteran wants everyone to know, women served too

Despite misconceptions, women served in Vietnam, alongside men. They mattered, and they… Continue reading

Cherished Nutcracker ballet returns to South Whidbey

A young girl, clutching a wooden Christmas nutcracker, dreams of finding her… Continue reading

Global holiday traditions featured Saturday

Many countries represented at Langley Children’s Holiday Festival

Whidbey war memorial created at American Legion post

Names of fallen soldiers sought for Legion’s tribute

“Sheep Barn, Winter Morning,” oil painting on linen by James Tennison.
                                Part of December show at Rob Schouten Gallery, Langley.
Art & About: December features holiday shows

Gallery shows and receptions around Whidbey

WICA presents two Christmas comedy classics

“Owen Meany’s Christmas Pageant” and “Santaland Diaries” offer a double treat for the holidays

The (little) railroad Jack built

This year’s display may turn out to be Tingstad’s last