Vailima Watson and her husband Jerry have been fixtures in the central Oahu neighborhood of Kalihi through their involvement in various community projects and youth programs for almost 30 years.
From heading the state’s first shelter for abused spouses to hosting night basketball games designed to diffuse gang violence between housing projects, they have worked to improve the lives of youths, many of them disadvantaged.
“My mission is to take care of these kids and to guide them,” said Vailima Watson, who coaches tennis for Farrington High and Kokua Kalihi Valley’s junior tennis league.
Their tennis program has resulted in several state contenders like Andre Ilagan, a Farrington senior who won the state championship this year.
“She’s aware of some of the inequalities that exist for these kids and works to make them feel empowered,” said Jo Ayers, chief coordinating officer at KKV, a family services organization, and Vailima’s supervisor. “She exudes enthusiasm, love and morality with these kids.”
The Watsons’ involvement in Kalihi began when Jerry was hired by KKV to collect research on domestic violence shelters on the mainland in 1975.
From there, with Jerry as director and Vailima as his administrative assistant, the two ran the Shelter For Abused Spouses and Children, the state’s first domestic violence shelter for families.
“Working at the spousal abuse center is where we really learned how to work with interagency and community programs,” said Jerry Watson.
“We do well together, we both have the same enthusiasm toward community service,” he said.
While the Watsons say that they wouldn’t trade their time at the shelter for anything, Vailima admits that the nature of the work they did there could sometimes take an emotional toll.
“It was hard, if you’re not used to seeing abused kids come in,” she said. “Just from the looks on their faces, you could tell they were hurting.”
After the Watsons stopped working at the shelter in 1979, Vailima joined Tavana’s Polynesian Spectacular as a dancer for 19 years while working part time at the Joint Military Family Abuse Shelter and Punahou’s after-school program.
In 1990 she resumed working with KKV and coordinated youth and outreach programs at the Kalihi Valley Homes Community Center.
One of the first projects she was involved in at KVH was the late-night basketball league for local kids that was started by KKV in 1994.
Games were held at Palama Settlement in the evenings during the summer and participants were required to have at least a 2.0 grade-point average.
“They really enjoyed doing that, it kept them away from drinking late at night, from smoking with their friends, it helped them to go back to school,” Watson said.
Athletes under Vailima’s tutelage attend public health classes as part of a “Tennis Not Tobacco” program every Thursday before practice.
“I grew up three houses down from (Kuhio Park Terrace, a public housing project on Linapuni street) and growing up in the area, I was really exposed to a lot of violence and drugs,” said Ryan Mandado, who joined the Farrington High tennis team as a sophomore. “Tennis really took me away from that and kept me busy.”
Mandado graduated from Farrington in 2011 and went on to get his master’s degree in education from John Hopkins University. He now heads the Special Education Department at Campbell High School.
Vailima Watson refers to him as a success story.
“Some of these kids have been with me since they were little kindergarteners all the way to high school,” she said.
In fact, she is known for keeping up with the students in her programs long after high school graduation. If you were to ask her what some of her previous students are up to, she could rattle off at least five without pausing to think. In addition to Mandado, they include:
• A Farrington graduate who is working on his doctorate in mathematics.
• Two chefs at Duke’s Waikiki restaurant.
• A schoolteacher in Ewa Beach.
“To see their success after high school and being successful in college and graduating, that’s really rewarding,” Watson said.
Watson said that her father, Tauivi Moe, was a huge influence in her life.
“My father treated everyone like family and was always helping others; this stuck with me,” she said.
Moe performed in a Polynesian dance group with his brothers called The Royal Samoan Dancers and after settling in Hawaii, he worked at the local YMCA as both a masseuse and custodian.
Vailima said that when people couldn’t afford the low-priced rental units that the YMCA offered at the time, he would invite them to get back on their feet in his own home and give them three free meals a day.
When he would bring people to their home, “He said, ‘that’s your brother and that’s your sister, you have to take care of them,'” Watson said. “He was a stickler for helping people.”
In October 2015, Watson was honored by the Honolulu City Council with a certificate of appreciation for her “dedication to the keiki of the Kalihi community” as a coach and mentor.
“I think what makes her unique is her enthusiasm and love for the kids,” said Ayers who has worked in various community programs for 40 years. “She has the enthusiasm of a 16-year-old for doing what she does.”
Mandado said that outside of success in a sport not “normally accessible to low-income kids,” Vailima Watson’s coaching and health classes taught him leadership, discipline and the importance of public service.
“She’s very caring, everything you’d want in a mentor,” said Mandado, who played tennis for Farrington from 2009 to 2011. “She’s just amazing.”
Watson said she can’t see herself retiring until she finds a replacement who she believes would take good care of Kalihi’s kids.
“The person I would like to take over would have to love the kids more than their job,” Watson said. “These kids are my future, they’re your future, they’re our future.”