The first thing Loretta Yajima asks me after we meet one recent Friday morning is whether she can give me a hug.

I accept, because Yajima reminds me of a kindly aunty, because she has a way of persuading people and because the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center in Kakaako is a welcoming place that I’ve never been before.

I’ve been aware of the museum’s presence ever since it opened near the waterfront park in 1995, of course. With its pastel exterior of pale yellow, pink and powder blue, the museum for keiki resembles children’s building blocks.

I’ve also known that it has been at ground zero of Honolulu’s homeless crisis, business has suffered and Yajima, the Discovery Center’s founder, former president and CEO and now longtime chair has sometimes shared her frustrations in the media.

Childrens Discovery Center with belongings piled up.

Homeless belongings just outside of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center. While conditions have improved, Kakaako is still a favored destination for some of Honolulu’s homeless.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While wary of being misrepresented in the press and sensitive to how politics may be at play, Yajima still wants to tell me things — things like these:

  • how she keeps a record that includes pictures of feces splattered on the front door, urine in keyholes and a bloody tampon on the steps;
  • how she comes into the office before 6 a.m. every day to “scoop up the poop” and hose down the pee so her own staff won’t fear coming to work;
  • how graffiti (including use of the F-word) has covered walls and how vandals have tapped into the electrical system to fire up televisions and cell phones;
  • how parking and two cattle gates were closed down for three months, making it almost impossible for visitors; and
  • how kids have climbed the walls to play with cigarette lighters and to burn things.

Yajima said she understands why the children of homeless families might break in to the premises.

“How can you fault them?” she said. “They have nowhere else to go.”

But the nonprofit Discovery Center, which originally opened nearly 30 years ago at Dole Cannery and currently attracts about 100,000 visits a year to its Kakaako location, doesn’t really have anywhere else to go, either.

Chair of the Board Hawaii Children's Discovery Center, Loretta Yajima.

Loretta Yajima is chair of of the board of the Discovery Center, her life’s passion.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While the homeless situation in Kakaako is “better,” a word Yajima uses cautiously (certainly better then a few years back when 300 homeless tents lined both sides of Ohe Street), the Discovery Center has seen a 30 percent drop in visits.

Yajima is protective and guarded about the center, where she works in a volunteer capacity but clearly runs the show, including the fundraising. Retired as an educator 30 years ago (she declined to give her age; “I’m old! I’m old! she laughed), Yajima’s mission is to keep the Discovery Center going in spite of all obstacles of the past five years.

“This is why we can’t give up,” she said. “If we don’t teach our children how to communicate with one another, to build relationships with one another, working together, taking pride in the things we accomplish as a society, as a community, as a state, as a country — this is what keeps me up at night.”

‘Explore, Discover, Imagine, Dream’

Yajima declined to share revenue numbers, although she acknowledged that donations are not as generous as they once were.

The nonprofit’s tax returns do show an increase year over year for each of the past three years. According to reports available on, the Children’s Discovery Center had total revenue of $1.92 million in 2016, the latest year the report is available. That’s up from $1.18 million in 2014, according to the documents.

And the center reported total assets of slightly more than $10 million for 2016, the tax records show.

Kids play in the Hawaii Childrens Discovery Center's day care area.

Kids play in the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center’s day care area.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Fortunately, the center’s board includes strong supporters such as Steven Ai of City Mill and Mark Fukunaga of Servco. Its president is Yajima’s daughter, Liane Usher. Yajima’s godfather was Hung Wo Ching, the late Aloha Airlines chair and entrepreneur.

But Yajima is as convinced as ever that the Discovery Center, which is now 38,000 square feet, serves the essential purpose of helping Hawaii’s children learn — or, as its website promises, “explore, discover, imagine, dream.”

“This is not charity for children, this is an investment in our future,” she said.

A Community Problem

It’s not just the center that is struggling.

The waterfront park, which experienced damages from homeless people that totaled as much as $500,000, was closed in October. It has since reopened, but with security guards posted and access limited.

“This is not charity for children, this is an investment in our future.” — Loretta Yajima

Yajima shared emails with me from Virginia Hinshaw, a chancellor emeritus with the John A. Burns School of Medicine, the Discovery Center’s neighbor. Like Yajima, Hinshaw has complained to state and city officials about the homeless challenge.

“The situation in Gateway Park worsens by the day with the increasing number of homeless camping and trashing the park — again,” she wrote in a recent email. “It is difficult to understand the opposition to tent cities or safe zones because that is exactly what we have now — but, in the current situation, the homeless get to camp wherever they want — in our parks!”

Hinshaw continued:

“The big difference is that the tax-paying citizens are paying repeatedly for all of the approaches which haven’t worked and also have lost the use of the parks which they are supporting. The homeless are also back on the sidewalks on Ilalo Street, including the bus stop. Also, two cars have been parked continually for weeks on Ilalo Street because people are camping in them. This repeat of the past is frustrating to the hilt.”

City and state officials are not ignoring homelessness, and certainly not in Kakaako. Homelessness and affordable housing remain priority issues at Honolulu Hale and the Capitol.

What makes Kakaako unique in terms of enforcement is confusion about jurisdiction. While it is located in Honolulu near downtown, it is controlled by a state agency, the Hawaii Community Development Authority.

Hawaii Childrens Discovery Center Big Mouth Theater.

The Big Mouth Theater where young kids learn about proper oral hygiene.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Yajima illustrates the challenge.

“They told us many times, ‘Call 911, don’t fool around,’” she relates. “You call 911 and the police say call the sheriff. The sheriff says call the police. The city says call the state, the state says call the city.”

Who is responsible then?

“Nobody has enforcement rights here,” she said.

Teachable Moment?

The morning I visited there were several homeless camping out directly across from the entrance to the Discovery Center. Yajima said she looked into hiring security but the cost is prohibitive.

Walking through the hands-on exhibits today — a rainforest, a tour of the human body, a small town, a local plantation and more — it is unimaginable that the facility is a former garbage incinerator. Among the exhibits are footprint molds from famous folks like Barack Obama, Jake Shimabukuro and Michael Jackson.

Reminded of the educational purpose of the center, I play devil’s advocate and ask whether the homeless situation might be a teachable moment for the kids. Yajima said she gets letters all the time from parents who suggest exactly that.

“This is an opportunity to talk to their kids, a learning opportunity,” she said. “But some of the parents say, ‘You see? If you don’t get a good education, that’s what’s going to happen to you, you know?’”

She continues: “On the flip side of that, churches and other organizations used to come here and open their trunks to give out food and clothing. And someone said once, ‘We did this for years and then we began to realize we are not really helping to solve the problem — we are enabling this to happen.’”

Yajima does not have a solution to a problem that has perplexed us all for decades. But she is quite clear on her purpose, and the center’s.

“I am not a politician and I am not a developer, but what I can do is teach children to think and to dream big dreams, and to learn that if they work hard, they can accomplish wonderful things in their life,” she said. “That is what we are all about.”

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