What If We Trained Hawaii's Youth To Be The Caretakers Of Their Communities? - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Kirsten Whatley

Kirsten Whatley is a Hana-based writer whose work has appeared in Orion, Tin House, Honolulu Magazine, The Washington Post and elsewhere. She is the author of Preserving Paradise, an award–winning guide to environmental volunteering in Hawaii. For 18 years, she served as the administrative director of Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike.


On a windy East Maui night, a tree crashed through the roof of a Hana home. Uncle and Auntie had no insurance and little money, so they asked the youth building program of the local nonprofit Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike for help. Together, a group of high school kids designed a new cottage for the couple and began the project.

Uncle, who had been battling cancer, would sit in his wheelchair each day, covered by blankets, and watch the kids work. As the house neared completion, he continued to grow weaker until, one afternoon, Auntie called a few of the student builders to his bedside. He took their hands and made them promise to finish the work and take care of his wife. Uncle passed away later that night. The students completed the home and came away from Uncle’s forever changed.

There has been a lot of talk recently about what work is considered “essential” to fulfill our society’s most basic needs. Food, shelter and health top the list. Here in Hawaii, the conversation becomes even more refined: How can we diversify our economy to be less reliant on the outside influence of tourism, to become more self-sustaining, using the resources we have here at home?

Let’s begin with our youth. What if we could train them to become skilled in these essential industries, serving both their educations and the future of their communities? What if we taught kids how to build, to provide shelter and urgent home improvements for their kupuna (elders) and other vulnerable populations? What if we trained youth in organic agriculture, so they could learn to grow healthy soil and food for their ohana (families)? And what if we taught our students health through a cultural lens, where growing an important staple crop such as kalo (taro) meant revitalizing its cultural practices while improving family health?

In 2000, Rick Rutiz, a homebuilder in the isolated East Maui community of Hana, decided to try the first of these theories. He began the nonprofit organization Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike (In Working, One Learns) to teach high school kids construction trades. Soon after, he and I met and I joined him in the work.

The students’ first training projects? To build a counselor’s office, a computer lab, an arts pavilion — real-life examples of education beyond the four walls, where kids could learn theories and concepts with their own hands.

Students who are part of Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike finish trim work on the high school counselor’s office that they built at Hana School.

As the program grew, we recognized there were needs outside of school that the kids’ training might fulfill, so our projects reached into the community. By this time, Rick and I had married.

The students started building home expansions in the subdivision, to help families with multiple generations crowded under the same roof. Our youth learned to install solar photovoltaic systems and took Hana homes toward sustainable energy generation. When we heard the news of a local house unexpectedly burning to the ground, our young builders led a community effort to rebuild it over a single weekend.

Our kids became a rapid-response team to help those who needed it most, building safety improvements in kupuna homes — over 70 to date — so Hana elders could continue living surrounded by loved ones.

Students built ramps and rails for those who had fallen or were returning home from sudden surgeries. They installed bathhouses fueled by solar hot water systems for extended families to share.

Youth who were once struggling in school began earning a highly respected place in our community. As one student put it, “When I help people and they get what they need, I feel like a superhero.”

Hana youth construct a ramp to help a wheelchair-bound community member access his home.

In 2010, Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike introduced Mahele Farm, a community farm where apprentices, kupuna and kids work and learn together, and all bring home part of the day’s harvest — an average of 2,000 pounds of organic produce each month. When you consider that Hawaii imports about 90% of its food from outside the islands, the farm strengthens not only intergenerational bonds but our community’s independence, its resilience.

Five years ago, the nonprofit introduced a third program, Mālama Hāloa, to share the cultural practice of pounding kalo. By teaching the ancient tradition of making poi-pounding boards and stones, growing kalo and pounding it into pai ai and poi, the program gives youth the tools to spearhead the health of their own ohana. In the words of another student, “Pounding kalo into poi is good for the soul.”

Up until the pandemic, the nonprofit’s bustling programs together served an annual average of 600-plus participants. These programs worked because success was put directly into the hands of our youth — to become both learners and leaders.

Moms, aunties and keiki learn, grow and harvest together at Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike’s community farm, Mahele Farm.

And the programs still work today, thanks in large part to the graduates who came back as apprentices and later developed into staff. When Rick and I retired from the nonprofit in 2019, we were able to pass the torch directly to the next generation. They are now guiding Hana’s future.

For decades, tourism has been the largest single source of income for Hawaii’s economy. But this outside dependence has made our economy vulnerable. Over the summer months of 2020, Hawaii’s unemployment rate hovered between 12% –13%, compared to 8%-10% nationally.

The current pandemic has also magnified issues that could be addressed by a more community-based approach to education and economic development. Safety improvements could keep kupuna in the care of family, away from the increased risk of virus spread in care facilities. Farm and kui kalo programs could provide alternatives to a reliance on imported food and related food shortages during crises.

As part of Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike’s kui kalo program, Mālama Hāloa, students learn the cultural importance of kalo.

Each community has its own challenges — and its own strengths. There are components of the building, farm and kui programs that could be adapted to other environments wherever there is a relevant need. The effort simply requires passionate people with a willingness to be ever flexible.

Share Your Ideas

Rick didn’t start Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike with a formal plan or extensive financial backing. He took a good idea to five of the clients he was building homes for and was given five checks to help get the idea off the ground. Today, a much larger Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike is supported by grants and donors dedicated to the Hana community.

In Hana, we chose to never charge the kupuna who were assisted by our youth, believing it is more empowering for kids to be motivated instead by kokua (helping others). But there could be many ways to approach the above concepts and to create circular economies within our communities.

Maybe it takes living in a small, isolated town to discover how reliant we are on each other for our survival. Maybe it takes a pandemic. But it’s time to look to ourselves to become caretakers of our islands — not just in the face of crisis, but to shift our economy away from dependence and vulnerability and toward self-sustenance and strength.


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About the Author

Kirsten Whatley

Kirsten Whatley is a Hana-based writer whose work has appeared in Orion, Tin House, Honolulu Magazine, The Washington Post and elsewhere. She is the author of Preserving Paradise, an award–winning guide to environmental volunteering in Hawaii. For 18 years, she served as the administrative director of Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike.


Latest Comments (0)

Overall this sounds like a great nonprofit. I would have liked to learn such useful, helpful things when I was a kid.  The concept is excellent, but it seems to be more a means to grow a wonderful community than a way to 'replace tourism.'  Whatever the case, most any community would do well to follow this kind of model.

pueobeach · 1 week ago

Great piece! We're working on the Big Island to create a kind of new Green Conservation Corps and your efforts are certainly inspiring. 

tamhunt1 · 1 week ago

Kudos to MKHKI.  The public school system has largely abandoned trade (everyone is "supposed" to go to college) and team building.  Great work to help those who can't help themselves.As for teaching the kids about "sustainable energy" - we need to make sure they understand that replacing one industrial technology with another to generate electricity from natural energy is not "green".  Every way man converts energy to electricity is an environmental negative, period.

Sally · 1 week ago

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