1 OCTOBER 2003

Tending to fish ponds and farming taro adds to youths’ self-worth

Federal program inspires youngsters on Molokai

At Ho'ikaika fishpond project at Ualapue in east Molokai,
Mahonn Kamai, 18, works in the Ho'ikaika Youth
Opportunity Program. More than 780 Molokai youths
have participated, earning stipends and jobs as they
work to further their education.]

Near a 22-acre fishpond connected through gates to the ocean, 18-year-old Mahonn Kamai uses a hand net to transfer finger-long milkfish, known as awa, into an incubation pool. Kamai, who is working to obtain his high school diploma, said he likes the part-time work raising fish because it puts him on the track toward getting more education and eventually a job. “It helps keep me off the streets,” he said.

Kamai is one of more than 780 youths who have participated in Molokai's Ho'ikaika Youth Opportunity Program, a project that was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor. The federally funded program, into its fourth year on Molokai, is intended to prepare people ages 14 to 21 in high poverty areas like Molokai for careers and independent learning. Ho'ikaika has helped find jobs for 239 of its participants and enrolled 114 of them in college. Under a federal designation as an “enterprise community,” helping to qualify Molokai for special government programs, some $8 million is being provided over five years through the labor grant to Ho'ikaika.

Since the closing of pineapple plantations in the 1970s and 1980s, the more than 7,400 people on Molokai have faced economic difficulties and the highest unemployment in the state. In August, the unemployment rate on the island was 15.8 percent.

Elizabeth Poepoe-Lawrence, the program's education coordinator, said native Hawaiians and part-native Hawaiians comprise more than 68 percent of the student population on Molokai. She said many Molokai youths in the Ho'ikaika program, including non-Hawaiians, appear to respond better when the educational aspects of the program are integrated into native cultural practices, such as taro farming and tending to a native fish pond. Earlier in the life of the project, the youths helped to restore the fish pond at Ualapue, in east Molokai.

“If you can connect them to a place and connect them to the culture, it will give them a greater understanding and appreciation of who they are and where they come from,” she said. “It will teach them to value themselves and their community and to give back to it.”

The program provides youths a stipend of up to $315 every two weeks, based on their work and learning performance.

Billy Kalipi Jr., the youth corps leader, said the level of the stipend depends upon each youth's ability to modify their behavior, including on-time attendance at program-sponsored work projects at the fishpond and nearby taro patches. Work tasks include pulling weeds from the taro patches and testing the alkalinity of incubation fish ponds. Kalipi said the youths are taught how the land and the flow of fresh water from the mountains help to provide the nutrients in the pond that attract a variety of sea fish and other animals. The youths also learn about the breeding cycles of fish such as mullet, also known as amaama, and their ocean migration during the winter months. To receive the stipend, the youths are also required to attend classes that will help them eventually obtain the equivalent of a high school diploma. For youths who eventually find jobs outside of the Ho'ikaika projects, the program subsidizes the first three months of pay, in hopes of giving them a chance to obtain enough skills for the job.

“What we're doing is helping to build young people's capacity to be self-sustaining and productive adults,” said Karen Holt, executive director of the Molokai Community Service Council, a nonprofit group that played a key role in initiating the youth program.

Holt said an important part of the program is the Molokai Chamber of Commerce, whose members have employed the youths and enabled them to acquire work skills. In an attempt to create the support for more businesses, the Molokai Community Service Council has also helped to develop a small business center to assist new enterprises. The council has assisted in establishing a commercial kitchen at Hoolehua, where residents may prepare food for packaging and sale. “We're still in the testing ground stage, and we're not sure what will open up, but we have a lot of optimism,” Holt said. He added the rural community on Molokai is different than an urban setting and there are no people, hungry and homeless, panhandling on the streets of Kaunakakai.

Kalipi said many of those who want to live on Molokai have to acquire a rural lifestyle. “If you coming here and don't know how to fish and hunt, it's going to be tough,” he said. Kalipi believes a great many of the 60 fish ponds along the southern coast could be restored and play an important role in reviving the economy.

For Kamai, who acknowledges he's made mistakes in his life, the youth project offers him a second chance to obtain his high school diploma and get a job outside Ho'ikaika. “It offers me a fresh start,” he said.

By Gary Kubota


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