Kea‘au, Hawai‘i – Jose Cruz caresses the kalo plant growing in a raised garden bed located in a lush oasis in the middle of an industrial park in this community in East Hawai‘i.
As he plucks the weeds from around the plant, the 45-year-old Hilo native reflects on his life, a life ravaged by crystal methamphetamine addiction and peppered with stints of incarceration including time in federal prison.
“I’m pulling the weeds so it doesn’t choke out the plant,” Cruz explained, “like the weeds that choked out my life,”
But Cruz now sees brighter skies ahead on the horizon as he plants the seeds to learning new skills that is already giving him a renewed outlook on reclaiming his life and changing it for the better.
“I was looking for hope,” Cruz said. “If we use the tools that this program is teaching us … I can make a difference in my life.”
Cruz has been participating in the Big Island Substance Abuse Council’s Po‘okela Vocational Training Program, which is a recipient of Kamehameha Schools’ community investment grants.
“Helping one individual at a time can help to change a community,” said Big Island Substance Abuse Council (BISAC) Chief Executive Officer Hannah Preston-Pita (KSK ’90).
Kamehameha Schools has awarded $24 million in community investment grants to support collaboration partners in more than 100 programs and projects like BISAC’s Po‘okela Vocational Training Program for the current fiscal year which began July 1.
The community investment grants target four primary priorities – $4.6 million for early learning, $12 million for kindergarten-to-grade-12 education, $4.25 million for college and career focus and $3 million for ‘āina and community engagement – with the goal of improving native Hawaiian learner outcomes in kindergarten readiness, 3rd grade reading scores, 8th grade math scores, on-time high school graduation rates and completion of post-secondary education.
“These grants support areas such as Hawaiian cultural-based immersion and charter schools, early education programs, ‘āina-based learning opportunities, vocational training and undergraduate and graduate internships,” said Lauren Nahme, Vice President of Strategy and Innovation. “As part of our Strategic Plan for 2020 and Vision 2040, we join with these community collaborators in working toward building a thriving lāhui.”
Statewide, several organizations received grants for multiple projects:
For time first time, Kamehameha Schools is providing multi-year funding to core collaboration efforts with charter schools, organizations stewarding KS ‘āina, and other critical partners.
In addition to the $24 million, Kamehameha Schools is honoring another $3 million in continued commitments to projects such as:
“With this financial investment, we envision a brighter future for Native Hawaiians – a future that includes improved academic readiness, post-secondary success, increased career opportunities, a deeper connection to place, a focus on family engagement and a greater knowledge of Hawaiian values, practices and principles,” Nahme said.
East Hawai‘i Regional Director Kilohana Hirano said community investment partners in this region work toward instilling kuleana in learners.
“We take a cue from our environment and the way our natural environment creates kīpuka for the regrowth of forest and coral. And we look to those types of organizations that grow kanaka in our communities. Those kīpuka kanaka is where we focus our community investment dollars as a way to create lāhui lifters,” Hirano said.
The Big Island Substance Abuse Council began in 1964 and now provides a continuum of services including its substance abuse treatment center and mental health services.
BISAC’s Po‘okela Vocational Training Program teaches career and life skills classes to recovering addicts. BISAC has also taken a version of the program to 32 schools island-wide to provide career instruction to teenagers.
“About three years ago, we were looking at factors that impacted clients when they left treatment and were returning to society,” said Preston-Pita. “What we were realizing was that a lot of individuals were lacking some of the vocational skills that are required to successfully reintegrate back into society.”
Preston-Pita said that the Po‘okela Vocational Training Program was created out of a desire to address those gaps. “Eventually, it turned into other things such as looking into vocational tracks like our cultural gardening and our food trailer – the Big Island Fusion -- and our (retail) Koho Pono Products.” The program also has an office vocational track.
The clients learn how to explore career options, write a resumé and cover letter and prep for an interview. The program uses the “Ka Lā Hiki Ola” career curriculum books to ground the program in the Hawaiian culture, said Raquel Chang (KSK ’90), BISAC chief medical officer.
Chang said the success can be seen in the stories of its clients who have gone through the program including one client who came from prison for treatment.
“This person was able to secure employment, get his commercial driver’s license back. Also, this individual had an opportunity to start mentoring to other individuals that had come through our program and he became a mentor for them in the community through sober support,” Chang said. “It’s these kinds of things that show the true purpose of what we want with the Po‘okela Program – to turn people’s lives around, let them know they have hope.”