Monday, January 11, 1999

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Papakolea Community Association President Puni
Kekauoha stands beside a welcome sign that represents
the resurgent pride residents feel for their neighborhood.
The sign, built last April, is embedded in an old military pillbox.

Papakolea leader
is catalyst
for change

By Rod Ohira


Puni Kekauoha is planting seeds for a better future in Papakolea, a Hawaiian Homestead neighborhood where some families have lived for six generations.

Under the leadership of Kekauoha, the articulate president of the Papakolea Community Association, residents have been working collectively the past six years on education, economic and health projects.

"She's the lightning rod," Hawaiian Home Lands community relations administrator Francis Apoliona said. "Puni doesn't sit around waiting for handouts; she goes out and makes things happen."

Concern in 1992 over low Scholastic Aptitude Test scores annually at Lincoln Elementary School, for example, led to the formation of Kula no na Po'e Hawaii, a nonprofit, community-based learning center which offers after-school tutoring and a summer enrichment program for children in Papakolea.

"There's been improvement on a small level with those we've worked with," Kekauoha said. "It's still our goal to improve the literacy skills of our children."

Working with the Queen Emma Clinic, the community also has established a 12-week medical mentorship program at Roosevelt High School.

And abandoned vehicles, bulky items and debris that used to clutter the landscape along narrow Tantalus Drive, which passes through Papakolea, have been removed by major community cleanups in 1997 and 1998.

"They want better for their kids, and that's the reason they're doing all this," said police Maj. Henry Lau, commander of the Central Honolulu patrol district. "The community has really turned things around in Papakolea."

A key factor has been Kekauoha's full-time involvement.

The 42-year-old single parent and Papakolea native still lives in the house on Iaukea Street that she grew up in.

Kekauoha is employed by Queen Emma Clinic as Papakolea's community health worker, and the home-based job is a perfect complement to her volunteer work.

"I'm doing what I love to do," said Kekauoha, a Roosevelt High grad. "We've been a very proactive community over the past five or six years, and by coming together we're building community pride."

Noting the role of the community association's leadership -- which includes Emma Wright, Dean Spencer, Makalapua Gomes and kupuna Maria Suganuma -- she added, "We're now the caretakers of our brothers and sisters."

The community leaders, realizing the need to channel activities toward a goal, began working on a plan for the future with staff from the Queen Liliuokalani Children's Center and University of Hawaii professors and students.

From August 1997 to January 1998, committees met with residents to identify projects they wanted for their community.

The community's 45-page report, "Vision for the Future," was completed last April.

Some of the primary projects are:

Bullet Starting a food wagon to sell snacks and healthy meals in Papakolea, with a portion of the profits going to community programs.

Currently, there are no stores in Papakolea. A private vendor who sells snacks daily to children upset community leaders when he refused to donate a case of soft drinks for a project.

Bullet Building a comfort station and information center on a vacant parcel of land at the corner of Hookui and Puowaina streets that the state returned to Hawaiian Home Lands two years ago.

Last April, the Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunrise helped the community build a large roadside sign on the site that reads, "E Komo Mai Papakolea" ("Come on in -- Papakolea"). It has become an expression of pride for residents.

The community has put in a request to City Councilman Jon Yoshimura for a water line to the site so they can grow native plants there.

Bullet Creating a resource directory of residents willing to share their skills, talents and resources with others in the community.

Bullet Cultivating native plants, which will be sold to help with the reforestation of Kahoolawe.

According to the report, there are currently 1,500 people living in 270 homes spread out over 136 acres in Papakolea, named after the kolea, or black plover birds, which used to migrate there.

Papakolea began as a squatter community made up of Hawaiian families who moved there in the late 1800s to escape the overcrowded slums of downtown Honolulu, Kekauoha said.

In May 1934, Congress amended the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act to include Papakolea, Kewalo and Kalawahine.

Two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Papakolea while vacationing here, according to Rufina Molaka-Lee, Philamina Ching, Emma Akiona and Suganuma, who saw him.

It's a special place for many.

"You never really leave Papakolea," Kekauoha said. "We've all been fortunate to have been raised by kupuna who instilled in us a lot of love and taught us to care for one another.

"We're like one big family -- there are good parts and bad. The houses here are small, but in Papakolea no one is ever turned away. Somehow, they make room for family that come back home."

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