Among the 50- and 60-year-olds on the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board, one face is different.

Zachary Espino, 19, joined the board in August and represents subdistrict 11, the Hale Aupuni area.

“I got involved in the neighborhood board to be a voice for young people,” said Espino, whose arrival means the board is fully represented with 13 members, which is a rarity.

Waimanalo stretches along Oahu’s Windward shore between Makapuu and Kailua. Within the scenic coastlines and mountainous backdrops are voices that are not speaking up.

“Young people of Waimanalo have a lot of complaints,” Espino said. “But the No. 1 question they need to ask themselves is how they’re going to make that difference and how they’re going to get involved.”

Zachary Espino Waimanalo portrait at Waiamanalo Elementary school.
Zachary Espino in front of the Waimanalo public library mural next to the elementary and intermediate school where his leadership journey began. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

His peers complain about Waimanalo being a community focused on kupuna — elders. There aren’t enough youth-oriented activities and opportunities, they say. The absence of a high school in Waimanalo forces teens to commute to neighboring communities like Kailua to continue their education.

And the Waimanalo District Park gym has been closed since June 2016 due to structural deterioration, with completion of a multimillion-dollar renovation project not expected until April. The gym was one of the town’s only places for organized sports and after-school programs, and was used by hundreds of kids.

The fine sand and shallow waters that the area is known for used to be family friendly, but now the tents of apparently homeless people line the entrance to Waimanalo Beach Park, pushing residents farther away from the facility with its showers, bathrooms and picnic tables.

Adolescents of Waimanalo are displaced by the restrictions of their own community. According to Espino, they learn early that staying in Waimanalo means fitting in with the crowd: the kupuna.

Families enjoy the sun and sand of Waimanalo Beach Park. Young people complain there’s not enough for them to do in the community. Annabelle Le Jeune/Civil Beat

Espino wants to help change that. He has hopped from one leadership position to another, starting with student government involvement in middle school and continuing at Kailua High.

He served as a legislative aide for state Sen. Laura Thielen and represented Hawaii in the United States Senate Youth Program, which gave him the opportunity to meet then-President Barack Obama in Washington.

“We love him, his attitude,” Wilson Ho, longtime chair of the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board, said. “All the rest of us are old farts; when we talk it’s about old Waimanalo. We need some young people.”

Espino’s interest and involvement sets him apart from a lot of other young people.

“You have to understand that Zachary has a whole lot of credentials,” Ho said.

While he hopes Espino will appeal to Waimanalo’s younger element, he fears that “no other young people will get involved.”

Home to the second-largest Hawaiian population on Oahu, Waimanalo residents generally aim to preserve the old-Hawaii feel. The plantation-style homes and mom and pop stores contrast with what’s on the other side of the mountains: employment and entertainment.

For many young people of the community, it’s all about “survival,” Ho said.

After graduating from high school, many go straight to work. By the time they’re 21, many have children, so supporting the family becomes the priority.

Espino is a full-time student at Kapiolani Community College pursuing a legal education degree. He also works as a program assistant for the state’s Department of Education. Despite a fully loaded schedule, his focus lies within the heart of his Waimanalo home.

His parents emigrated to Hawaii from the Philippines nearly 23 years ago with little to their name but a desire for work and opportunity.

“All the rest of us are old farts; when we talk it’s about old Waimanalo. We need some young people.” — Wilson Ho, Waimanalo Neighborhood Board chair

The state and community provided his parents with the support and guidance they needed to find work and make a living, he said.

“What they got from living here is what I want to give back to the community,” Espino said.

Espino believes that people his age do not find Waimanalo an ideal place to live and start families because of the community’s dynamic. He compares Waimanalo to Kailua, where the cost of living is high but there are plenty of shopping opportunities and restaurants.

He doesn’t want Waimanalo to be like Kailua, however. Instead, he supports noncommercial development, more convenient transportation, youth-targeted programs and more affordable housing.

And he wants his peers to understand that taking care of Waimanalo is a way of taking care of themselves, their keiki and their kupuna.

Young people feel that their parents are supposed to attend neighborhood board meetings, not them, Espino said. But he sees an opportunity to speak up and get involved in the community they grew up in.

The mauka side of Waimanalo is lined with neighborhoods that preserve an older style of living. Annabelle Le Jeune/Civil Beat

Espino wants the neighborhood board to use innovative means of communication and technology, such as social media, to keep the community updated about local issues.

Many people can’t attend the board meetings because of work and family obligations, and Espino wants them to know that their input is still important and looks to interact with them outside of the meetings.

While Espino stands out for now, others are inspired by his actions.

“He’s constantly helping our own community and helping future leaders at the student state council,” said Drew David, 17, of Waimanalo. “Zach inspires me to become a better leader … he taught me that each person has something unique to offer and it’s important to cultivate.”

David is following in Espino’s footsteps by participating on the Windward District Student Council and Hawaii State Student Council, which are represented by one student per high school to voice student concerns.

Espino said efforts to restore crumbling infrastructure, encourage community involvement and preserve the unique culture of Waimanalo requires people of all ages.

“This is a community effort and I think that should be embraced … Waimanalo could be a model for once and not be that bad example,” Espino said.

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