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Oct 15, 2014

All the Queen's Keiki

From Hana Hou!, the magazine of Hawaiian Airlines

Story By: Dave Choo / Photos By: Ryan T. Foley

The Queen Liliʻuokalani Children's Center is a gift to Hawaiʻi's children in need.

It’s a hot July afternoon in Punalu‘u. In one corner of the campground, teenage boys and several twenty- and thirty-something uncles, who still move around like teenagers, are playing volleyball. Nearby, parents and grandparents sit in folding chairs under a canopy and talk story, while a couple of aunties spread out beach towels and lie under a fifty-foot tall banyan tree. A handful of younger kids mill around the banyan, trying to figure out the quickest—and likely the most hazardous—way to climb the tree.

It looks like any other weekend campout in Hawai‘i, but this is Grief Camp—an annual weekend of remembrance hosted by the Ko‘olau Poko Unit of the Queen Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center. QLCC is an Island-wide social services agency whose mission is to support the orphaned and destitute children of Hawai‘i—particularly those of native ancestry—and their caregivers. Most everyone here has recently lost a son or daughter, husband or wife, an auntie or uncle. Yet there’s been little sadness at Grief Camp: The group spent the morning at nearby Kualoa Beach Park, learning about stellar navigation and wayfinding—the same techniques and knowledge that enabled the early Polynesians to find and settle tiny islands in vast sea, including those of Hawai‘i. They sailed canoes and played Makahiki games. Now they are getting some much-needed rest.

Bryan Amona isn’t shedding any tears, although no one would blame him if he did. Three years ago, he lost his daughter, Jasmine, to cancer. She left behind a daughter, Ka‘ula, who Bryan and his wife, Cynthia, care for. Last year, Bryan’s 89-year-old mother passed away—on the same date that Jasmine died—and less than two weeks ago, Cynthia lost her long battle with a chronic respiratory illness.

Bryan’s still raw, but he wouldn’t have missed this camping trip for anything, because it fulfills a promise that he made to Jasmine, who had asked him to ensure that Ka‘ula, now ten, never forgets her mother. That promise eventually led him to QLCC, where Bryan and Ka‘ula receive much-needed support.

“We knew she [Cynthia] was going to go soon, so this campout was supposed to be our last one together. Me not coming here wouldn’t have changed what happened to my wife,” says Amona. “I’m doing this for my daughter and granddaughter—and for the queen. She didn’t have any kids herself, but she had the foresight to start QLCC. I find that very, um, I don’t know how to describe it….” Amona motions to a nearby pavilion and a lei-draped portrait of Queen Lili‘uokalani. Next to the portrait is a table with flower arrangements and photos of loved ones who have passed away, including Jasmine and Cynthia.

“Ka‘ula loves coming here and being around other kids who have lost a mom or dad,” says Bryan. “They have a kinship together. It is very matter-of-fact, and the adults get together and we can talk. There are tears, sorrow and joy. When you go to the center, you can bring whatever you have, and it’s a safe place.”

QLCC is not your everyday social services agency. It accomplishes its mission both by forming strong relationships with the children and families its serves and by staying close to Hawaiian traditions and values. The center is funded by the Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust, a private foundation started in 1909 by Hawai‘i’s last monarch, who stipulated that the revenues generated from her inherited ancestral lands be used to benefit orphans. Destitute children were added as beneficiaries two years later. “The queen always had a great love for children,” says Ben Henderson, QLCC’s president and executive director. “But it was also about saving her people. Hawaiians were literally dying off, victims of introduced diseases, and their children were wandering the streets.” The vast majority of the trust’s 6,800 acres are agricultural and conservation lands on Hawai‘i Island, says Henderson. However, it also owns sixteen acres in Waikiki (on which sit the Marriott Waikiki Beach Hotel, Pacific Beach Hotel and several condominiums). Lease revenues from these parcels provide the lion’s share of the center’s annual $19 million budget.

QLCC has locations on each of the Islands except Ni‘ihau and serves approximately 1,500 children and their families, as well as supporting many thousands more through community programs. The center doesn’t advertise and keeps a low public profile; it gets word-of-mouth referrals from hospices, hospitals, social workers and current and former beneficiaries. QLCC’s core services include individual grief counseling for children and adults as well as a wide array of support groups and activities, like Grief Camp. Because it’s generously funded from a single private source, the center has the flexibility to customize its services to suit a family’s needs. And they keep things small: At the Ko‘olau Poko Unit, social workers have caseloads of about ten to fifteen families a year, which allows them to provide hands-on support.

It’s in the initial ice-breaking meetings with families that QLCC distinguishes itself from other social services agencies, says Susan Wada, manager of the Ko‘olau Poko Unit, which covers a territory that stretches from Kualoa to Kaimuki.  Contrary to convention, QLCC encourages its caseworkers to establish personal relationships with their clients, which result in honest communication and better outcomes. Wada, who grew up in Kane’ohe, doesn’t hesitate to tell her clients about losing her father when she was nine and the confusion and isolation that she felt growing up. But it’s not just about past lives and lessons learned. Wada graduated from Castle High School and still lives in Kane‘ohe, her children go to the same schools as her clients, and she often sees them at the supermarket or the mall. She welcomes the opportunities when she can introduce her “real” family to her QLCC ones. It’s important, she says, that her families see her as someone who understands their struggles, because she is dealing with many of the same issues. “Our families come here voluntarily, so when we first meet they are the ones deciding whether they want to work with us or not,” says Wada. “So it can be a slow, deliberate process as we get to know each other.”

Wada says that the center used to operate more like a conventional social service agency, with caseworkers and clients sitting at a desk and a long list of rules and regulations between them. That approach didn’t feel right to QLCC staff; it wasn’t how they lived, so it didn’t seem to be how they should work. About twenty years ago, the center started incorporating Hawaiian values with Western social work practices, and in this QLCC is unique. Wada points out that the Native Hawaiian tradition of hanai (informal adoption) recognizes the importance of keeping children within their extended families. The center’s top priority, she says, is to keep the family—imperfect as it may be—together. Many of the kids are being raised by uncles and aunts, grandparents and even some great-grandparents. QLCC supports those efforts, in part by providing legal assistance to help family members secure custody. 

“It’s not about working through a list of dos and don’ts. We look for the strengths—not the weaknesses—in the family and try to build upon them,” says Wada. “However, sometimes nothing goes well and your client is yelling at you, but that’s just life. We take strength through the queen’s example. How was she able to look at her lost kingdom and be so gracious? That keeps us centered.”

Kanoe Enos knows something about staying centered in a difficult world. He grew up in Makaha, on the impoverished leeward side of O‘ahu. He had dropped out of high school and was working a tourism industry job when he decided about ten years ago that he wanted to share his Hawaiian culture rather than profit from it. He got his GED, enrolled at Leeward Community College and earned bachelor’s degrees in Hawaiian studies and social work, as well as a master’s in social work from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. But his early struggles, it turns out, have been assets in his role as a caseworker for QLCC.

“You can understand the context of where the kids live and their struggles when you’re barely making it yourself,” says Enos. “It ain’t easy, brah.” Today Enos, 34, helps run the Ko‘olau Poko Unit’s youth program, providing boys age 11 to 18 with monthly hands-on learning. Most of the activities revolve around malama ‘aina, caring for the land: lessons in traditional ways of living and thriving. Enos and his boys have worked at fishponds, in taro lo‘i (ponds) and on his father’s farm.

The lessons aren’t only about the ‘aina. Last month, Enos took the group on a campus tour of UH Manoa, where they visited the school’s athletic complex and Campus Center, as well as the chemistry department and the Hawaiian Studies Center. Even a visit to Dave & Buster’s turned into a learning experience, with a behind-the-scenes tour of operations and lessons in pono (proper) behavior and kuleana (collective responsibility). “We take our kids to the top of the mountain and show them how to live there, and that’s awesome,” says Enos. “But they are going to have to come down and also live in today’s world. There are so many things that we can’t account for: the drugs, relationships, financial or whatever kind of pressures that they have. But we can provide them with role models, scaffolding, critical thinking skills, little successes throughout the year.”

According QLCC caseworker Jaymee Nanasi Feinga, who leads the girls’ group and provides many of the educational components for the unit’s outings, integrating culture is essential. Culture is ingrained, she says. The kids don’t know why they do certain things, why they think or feel certain ways. Feinga tries to give them tools to understand what they can’t describe. “Culture is such a broad term. It involves so many emotions and feelings. There are no tests, assessments or evaluations that measure the effectiveness of using culture in our work,” says Feinga. “At QLCC we’re given the flexibility to go sailing on the wa‘a [canoe] and make it applicable to the work that we do.”

Feinga is sitting at a picnic table, playing cards with several young girls, including ten-year-old Ka‘ula. Earlier that day Feinga taught Ka‘ula and the other girls about the history of the area and what it might mean to them: That Kualoa and Hakipu‘u are both part of a pu‘uhonua (place of refuge), and because all of the kids are on their own grief journeys, they need to find their own pu‘uhonua. She names a few of the local landmarks that the kids learned about on their morning sail: Moli‘i fishpond, Mokoli‘i islet and the Ko‘olau range’s peaks.

“I didn’t see any of those things!” says Ka‘ula.

“Didn’t you go sailing?” asks Feinga.

“I did. Oh, I forgot. I fell asleep.”

Feinga pauses and laughs and gently squeezes the young girl’s hand, pleased that she slept through the day’s lesson. “Our work is all about relationships, establishing relationships and providing a pu‘uhonua for our families,” says Feinga. “How do we measure the effectiveness of our work? The fact that Ka‘ula and her grandpa came today, despite all that they have lost, says a lot. And the fact that she can have a moment of peace and take a nap tells me that we’re doing something right.”


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