Community voices: North Hawaii non-profits

  • Matt Hamabata, The Kohala Center’s recently retired director, stands with staff members Cortney Okumura, Stella Caban and Nancy Redfeather at their new campus on Kohala Mountain. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE KOHALA CENTER)
  • ABOVE: NKCRC, led by Executive Director Christina Richardson, serves all aspects of North Kohala community life, pictured here with Office Manager Juanita Rivera and Associate Director Megan Solis. (PHOTO COURTESY OF NKCRC) LEFT: Friends of the Future’s Executive Director Susan Maddox oversees many programs for Tutu’s House, and with Hui Kuapa, Waipio Valley Community Circle, the Hawaii Island Leadership Series, Earl’s Garage and Baby Steps. (PHOTO COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF THE FUTURE)
  • Friends of the Future’s Executive Director Susan Maddox oversees many programs for Tutu’s House, and with Hui Kuapa, Waipio Valley Community Circle, the Hawaii Island Leadership Series, Earl’s Garage and Baby Steps. (PHOTO COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF THE FUTURE)
  • The North Kohala Community Resource Center is in Hawi. (FILE PHOTO)
  • The Kohala Center office is located in Waimea. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE KOHALA CENTER)
  • The Friends of the Future office is located in the same building as Tutu’s House, their longest running program. (PHOTO BY LANDRY FULLER)

Like a voyaging canoe, our island’s spirit fosters lokahi (unity) and it is this spirit that has created the broad network of non-profit organizations (NPO) in North Hawaii. Currently 166 strong, NPOs cover a wide range of projects geared towards creating thriving healthy communities by providing programs to connect with and perpetuate indigenous culture; that enrich educational experiences; and promote the health and wellness of both people and the environment.

The relationship between the NPOs of North Hawaii and the communities they serve can be likened to that of a skilled gardener to a thriving garden. The aware gardener lets the garden speak and then responds by creating the necessary conditions for growth. This is at the heart of NPO umbrella organizations such as The Kohala Center, Friends of the Future (FOF) and North Kohala Community Resource Center (NKCRC).

“We don’t tell the community what it needs. The community comes to us and tells us what they think they need,” says Christina Richardson, NKCRC’s executive director.

The Island Difference

Mainland communities with a broader tax base fill many of the needs that are answered by North Hawaii NPOs.

“We fulfill a lot of service roles that on the mainland or other parts of the world would be fulfilled by either municipal governments, health departments or parks and recreation. Non-profits take on a lot of functions here that would ordinarily be provided by a different structure,” says Susan Maddox, FOF’s executive director.

Primary to how NPOs of North Hawaii operate is acknowledging community intelligence. Friends of the Future began in 1991, inspired by its founder Kenneth Francis Brown, great grandson of John Papa I’i, advisor to King Kamehameha IV. For Brown, community health had a broad definition and was based in ancient Hawaiian knowledge systems and practices.

“Kenneth Brown felt that the community can best determine what they need for health and wellness. The foundation of FOF came about from a series of conversations [Brown had] over the years to see what kinds of ideas might bubble up about community health,” says Maddox.

Tutu’s House is FOF’s longest running program and has served as an educational, health and wellness resource since 1994. Other programs include the areas of cultural preservation through oral histories with Hui Kuapa; conservation and agriculture with the Waipio Valley Community Circle; and education with the Hawaii Island Leadership Series, Earl’s Garage and Baby Steps.

The Kohala Center, which began in 2000, was based on a community health survey that asked: What would make us a happier, healthier community?

“Public health folks went out to the community in and around Waimea and despite all the dreadful problems we struggle with (diabetes, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence), people didn’t ask for more social services, they asked for social change,” says Matt Hamabata, who recently retired as director of The Kohala Center. “We didn’t need money. It just needed a change of perspective. It’s about valuing ourselves as local people,” he adds.

The Kohala Center now has eight areas of support including educational programs such as the Malaai Culinary Garden and Hawaii Island School Garden Network; agriculture with the Beginning Farmer Rancher Development Program and Hawaii Public Seed Initiative; and conservation with the Kohala Watershed Partnership and the Kahaluu Bay Education Center.

Hui: Come Together and Make Connections

Many hard working people, infused with the spirit of Aloha, have come together to create the umbrella organizations that facilitate the plethora of NPOs in North Hawaii.

The North Kohala Community Resource Center was born from the vision of an umbrella organization that would serve all aspects of North Kohala community life, that Founder Bob Martin shared with a group of concerned residents whose “hearts were in the community.” The NKCRC now has an array of programs under their umbrella that includes agriculture, conservation, education and cultural preservation.

“We have helped put music, art and yoga in the public schools. We’ve got some great equine programs that we do including Lio Lapaau and the Kohala Equine Education Center. They’re all about preserving the paniolo culture, making sure the kids can learn to ride and to understand how important horses are in our history, our story,” says Richardson.

North Hawaii NPOs also advocate for communities by creating bridges between community voices and broader social contexts.

“One of the things that is so exciting to me about The Kohala Center is that all of our staff, our board, recognize community intelligence and tap into it, foster it and connect it with the best institutions on this island, in the state and nationally,” says Hamabata.

But it’s not just about seeking grant monies. Beyond finding funding, it’s seeing points of connection that tap into community expertise and knowledge that make North Hawaii NPOs effective beyond all expectations.

“Non-profits tend to work together and network, creating something larger than any one (NPO) could individually. And in the FOF’s case, a number of programs that have come through have found interesting connections between themselves that wouldn’t have necessarily happened if each of those programs were its own independent 501 c3,” Maddox says.

A Model for the World

North Hawaii NPOs have attracted notice outside the island community.

“I have funders on Oahu now who come to talk to me about going to other small typical communities like this in the state and teach them how to create a non-profit,” says Richardson.

On the world stage, The Kohala Center’s new Executive Director Kamana Beamer has entered the international arena.

“He’s just created a research agreement with the food and agriculture organization of the U.N. and has already been to Rome and Bogota,” says Hamabata.

It seems that the ancestral spirit of the land has spoken through the island communities, and the North Hawaii NPOs have listened and answered.

“The Hawaiians have always thrived at the intersection of human and natural systems. So if we put those two things together — the island planet and this fantastic knowledge system about how to live well in kinship with nature — we can become a model for the world,” Hamabata concludes.

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