Several years ago, an international expert on child welfare introduced me to how another community esteems and cares for its young. It has remained with me to this day.

She pointed out that the African warriors of the Maasai tribe, a nation well known for its military arts and long history of conquest, use a simple traditional greeting. They ask the question, “Casserian engeri?” Meaning: “And how are the children?”

The Maasai understand that if the children are well, the community they live in is well. More importantly, this greeting summarizes the place children have in their communal priorities.

From time to time I have turned this lesson about community priorities over in my head and have asked the question, “Why haven’t we made this part of our daily focus in life?” How have we in Hawaii allowed other concerns and urgencies to overshadow our commitment to our young?

A homeless girl, age 4, who was living on the streets of Kakaako near the Children's Discovery Center in August of 2014. Why are such children not a higher priority for Hawaii, the writer asks.

A homeless girl, age 4, who was living on the streets of Kakaako near the Children’s Discovery Center in August of 2014. Why are such children not a higher priority for Hawaii, the writer asks.

Eric Pape/Civil Beat

Today we face the consequences of this disregard in our community. The state oif Hawaiian children and children in general in Hawaii are reflected in discouraging statistics. Hawaii is ranked near the bottom third in education nationwide, and more than half of our children are not attending preschool.

Results from the Hawaii State School Readiness Assessment show that only 14.5 percent of kindergarten classes have at least three-fourths of the children consistently displaying the skills and characteristics necessary for success in school life.

Early childhood education and school readiness are essential, as research has shown that 85 percent of brain development occurs by age 5.

Compared to non-homeless children, homeless kids are nine times more likely to repeat a grade, four times as likely to drop out of school and have higher rates of chronic/acute illnesses, learning disabilities and emotional or behavioral problems than their peers.

Compounding these dismal statistics, the number of children living in poverty in Hawaii has increased in the past five years. These living conditions and lack of resources can have a lasting detrimental effect on children, especially homeless children.

Compared to non-homeless children, homeless children are nine times more likely to repeat a grade, four times as likely to drop out of school, three times more likely to be placed in a special education program, twice as likely to score lower on standardized tests and have higher rates of chronic/acute illnesses, learning disabilities and emotional or behavioral problems than their peers.

Recent articles have called our community’s homeless situation “a crisis that demands action” with the children at the very center of that crisis. However, no rational policy has emerged from our leaders.

Not a pretty sight. Perhaps we should think about greeting each other with “Aloha! Pehea nā keiki?” as a means of resetting our priorities as a community.

The Hawaiian culture, as is true in most cultures, recognizes the critical role the care and preparation of our children have in the survival of their community. How is that played out in our community? How do we tolerate an educational system that takes significant resources and delivers questionable outcomes in the lives of our young? Why do children from dysfunctional families often end up in a harsh public child welfare system?

Where is our investment in programs to prepare children and families for success? Why do we not demand outcomes with our investment in children that will sustain healthy and resilient communities? Could it be because our unspoken greetings are “… and how are the teachers?” or “… and how are the administrators?” or “… and how is the union?” or “… and how are our politicians?” We end up relegating children, particularly poor homeless children, way down the priority list of public and private investment.

As we come together, let us ask each other, “Pehea nā keiki?” and have the courage to mean it and act upon it. Pose the question to those who represent us … let’s see their responses. Perhaps sometime soon we can respond, “Maika‘i nō nā keiki!” (They are well!)

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About the Author

  • Jan E. Hanohano Dill
    Jan E. Hanohano Dill is a Native Hawaiian dedicated to helping communities become healthy and resilient. In 1997, he formed the non-profit organization Partners in Development Foundation, and in 1998, the Consortium for Hawaii Ecological Engineering Education, now known as Malama Aina Foundation. Dill’s opinions and views do not necessarily reflect the vision and policies of PIDF or MAF.