It was in 2002 that our vision for Kapalai began to unfold. At that time Dean was working full time as a DOE teacher at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility by day and performing as a Hawaiian musician by night. I was a stay at home mom caring for our 3 girls. We were happy living in our humble home
in the Olomana subdivision which we referred to as “Beavercleaverville” and perfectly content to spend the rest of our lives there as the neighborhood was an ideal environment to raise our family. A small garden kept our table full of fresh vegetables year-round with enough abundance to share. It was a common practice for us to use the leaves from our kalo plants to invite our friends over to prepare laulau (a Hawaiian favorite) and make an imu (underground oven) to cook them in. It was inevitable that these gatherings would turn into celebrations of food, friends, and fellowship – mini neighborhood luaus in our carport. They became quite frequent, growing in numbers, to the point where soon we were outgrowing our small space.
During this period, Dean, who was an English teacher at the facility, was having difficulty connecting with his students who had no interest in the subject. He had the thought to plant some kalo right outside his classroom. What better way to connect with young Hawaiians (75% of the student population) than with a plant and food very significant to their culture? As the plants grew, so did their interest. He began to shift his subject matter to areas they might relate to such as music, breaking down rap to teach poetry, and challenging them to write their own. Suddenly they were engaged. As a reward, Dean led them in harvesting the leaves of the kalo to make their own laulau. The majority had never done so before and had no idea how this common dish was prepared. They took great pride in the fact that they grew the majority of the ingredients, prepared a delicious dish with their own hands, and had plenty to share with teachers and staff. A breakthrough had occurred.
Back to the carport…. it was through this season that an idea began to emerge. Dean would often come home after challenging days and share heartbreaking stories about the life circumstances of his students. Drugs, violence, incarcerated parents, no home, no place to shower, no one to prepare a meal, were all common themes. These kids were set up to fail from the beginning. Caught in a spiral of circumstance, just trying to survive, many of them turned to substance abuse to ease the pain. In most cases, incarceration was a much better alternative to the hopeless reality of their lives. What was the common denominator in all the stories – broken families. As we sat in our safe, privileged bubble, we began to think of our carport luaus and garden. It was so easy for Dean to connect with the kids in the growing, preparing, and eating of kalo. We asked ourselves, “What if we were able to do this at a community level, not just with the kids but with their families and community members as well?”. What if we could mimic our carport gatherings at a community level? It seemed there was some healing power to the notion of using food to gather people to encourage fellowship, building healthy relationships, and bringing hope to an otherwise hopeless situation.
THEORY OF CHANGE
For months, Dean and I found ourselves having regular discussions around this notion. There must be something that we could do that would be more impactful than the confines of his classroom. We contemplated multiplying our little garden plot a thousand times and making it accessible to struggling families in the community where we saw the greatest need. Our big “idea” or theory of change was:
- Create a safe, nurturing, gathering space for families to invest in productive and meaningful work so they could begin to let down their guard and feel hope.
- Help families connect in a space where they could form important relationships with the land, themselves and others in the community.
If our theory worked then healing would occur, self-concept would rise, and they would see their lives as having value, meaning, and purpose. Through offering this kind of activity and space, we could contribute to the restoration and rebuilding of a healthy community.
Of course, we had no idea if it would work. In fact, we had no idea about anything! All we had was a nagging notion that this was something that we ABSOLUTELY had to do. Once the idea was clear, we couldn’t let it go. We felt compelled to action in a way neither of us had ever experienced before. It did not make any sense to anyone around us. Why would we burst our perfect little “beavercleaver” bubble and risk failure for something that more qualified institutions could handle? Many wise individuals suggested that IF we were so compelled, we should join organizations with more experience who were doing similar work. But there was no reasoning with us. Events unfolded so quickly, we had no time to think about the details or to back out. Within a year, our house was sold and we were driven by a vision with no plan, direction, experience, or help. What catapulted us forward was a burning passion and unwavering faith that the God who downloaded this upon our collective hearts would be faithful to provide all the necessary means to see it through.
Our search for the right piece of property to unfold our vision took us down a path we were unprepared for. It was 2003, the year the housing market skyrocketed in what seemed like 5 minutes after we sold our house. Within 5 months the house we sold was well outside of our means and our search for a small plot of ag land from Ka’a’a’wa to Waimānalo led to one closed door after another. We moved into a 700 square foot home to caretake a church thinking it was a very temporary way for us not to spend our savings on rent. Our stay turned into 5 years! As several offers for small plots of land were rejected, we began to think we had made a very big mistake. Perhaps we should have listened to all our many concerned friends and advisors. There was just no going back.
In the spring of 2006, a friend who knew what we were looking for suggested we have a look at a property in the Kailua neighborhood, Maunawili. We had a chuckle after speaking with him knowing Maunawili was far out of reach from what we could afford but out of respect and curiosity we decided to have a look. From the moment we stepped foot on Kapalai, I had a feeling from my head to my toes, THIS WAS IT!! We could’t believe our eyes. It was far beyond anything we ever dreamed of or imagined. Although overgrown and untouched for nearly 100 years, the land seemed rich and fertile, flowing with natural springs, and perfectly suited to grow kalo. It was a beautiful kipuka (oasis) in the midst of dense residential development and seemed too good to be true. But when Ke Akua has a plan, he clears the way. That is exactly what happened over the next year. Acquiring the nearly 8 acres in the heart of Maunawili was nothing less than a miracle.
August 12th, 2007, Dean and I signed the official papers and the door opened wide for our vision to begin. Although completely at a loss as to where to begin, we trusted that if we came this far, then provision and direction would arrive. And so it did! We put in 3 years of sweat equity to remove all the rubbish that contractors had been allowed to dump onsite, build a road, put in basic infrastructure such as water, power, and storage, and cleared our first loʻi with the help of many volunteers. The ʻāina was blessed and given the name Kapunawaiolaokapalai – the living springs of Kapalai which is the old ʻili (land division) name for the area.
For the last 12 years we have been forging the way through uncharted territories, learning as we go. It has been a wild ride full of many bumps along the way. In the early years, we often found ourselves in a place of uncertainty or discouragement and the grand vision seemed so far away – unattainable. There were a few times we wondered if maybe we had lost our minds. Each time we hit a lull, without fail, a miraculous provision would drop down to lift us up and put some new wind in our sails.
In 2011, we formed the nonprofit Hoʻokuaʻāina, named by Uncle Earl Kawaʻa who during that time had become a treasured mentor and friend to help guide us in the cultivation of kalo. With a few loʻi established we were able to start part time programming with the youth transitioning out of Hawaiʻi Youth Correctional Facility. Although we didnʻt have any funding, Deanʻs former students were eager to work for the experience of doing something productive and perhaps the promise of a pepperoni pizza after. With two key advisors on board (Andrew Aoki and Kina Mahi), we slowly formulated a very clear strategic plan to begin sharing our story with potential funders and start formal programming with the focus on at-risk youth. 2014 was a breakthrough year for us as an organization. Two substantial funders, Consuelo Foundation and Office of Youth Services, partnered with us so that Dean could leave his job and become our first full time employee as a director, educator, and youth mentor/life coach. It took seven years, but we had finally arrived and were officially doing the work that we had set out to do full time.
Looking back all those years ago, sitting in our carport, contemplating the what ifs, we are so thankful we didn’t spend too much time wondering about the risk and just said yes. There is no way we could have imagined what was to unfold. Kapalai is now the gathering place we hoped it would be, reaching four thousand visitors per year. Our first official program was the Kūkuluhou Mentoring Program designed for the students who inspired us from the beginning. Today, it remains the heart of everything we do and reaches 20-30 youth ages 13-18 per year. Referrals to the program participate in nine months of weekly life skills training to build self-esteem. Since 2009, we have offered over 200 intern positions for young adults 17-24 to provide technical training and sharpen leadership skills. The Kupuohi ʻāina based education program is thriving, providing an outdoor living classroom to 1500 students annually, K-12th grade. In 6 years, our staff of 1 has grown to 9. The biggest accomplishment this year was completing the build out of the loʻi with 23 patches in production, something I wasn’t sure we would see in this lifetime. With a growing space of about 3 acres, we are able to produce around 30,000 pounds of kalo per year which helps to supplement our programming costs making us more sustainable as an organization.
2020 marks the year we take a step back as an ʻohana and makaluhi. Literally translated makaluhi means tired eyes but in this case, we use it as an adjective to describe “a period of rest or feasting which follows a prolonged season of toil” (wehewehe.org). We have certainly toiled and there is much more that lies ahead, but we are purposefully taking this year to makaluhi – to sit back a bit and gaze with satisfaction at how far we have come. As we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic with many uncertainties looming for our communities, one thing remains certain, Kapunawaiolaokapalai has been brought back to life after nearly a century of dormancy. What was once thriving has been revived for such a time as this and is a resource available to those seeking connection, nourishment, and restoration. For all of you who have contributed to the journey, we hope you celebrate this season of makaluhi with us. And get ready, we have only just begun!
Makaluhi (mă’-kă-lū’-hi), adj.
[From makaluhi, to be weary.] An adjective descriptive of the rest or feasting which follows a prolonged season of toil.
Parker Dictionary (Hwn to Eng)