Lives captured on the rebound


POSTED: Sunday, August 30, 2009

Thirteen-year-old Brendan started off on the wrong foot. He was into tagging property with graffiti, smoking weed and just “;doing bad stuff,”; he explained.

His life began to turn around after an unfortunate incident at school. “;I was having a bad day,”; he said. Brendan had not eaten breakfast, was denied access to the bathroom and had a teacher who was not willing to work with him. “;My teacher was just picking on me,”; he explained. “;I guess he was having a bad day, too.”;

On his way home from school, angry from the day's events, he kicked a wooden fence, knocking it down, landing him in a courtroom. This was the wake-up call he needed to start turning his life around, and he got into the Hale Kipa program.

Brendan has dealt with issues that are unfamiliar to many adults and kids alike. He claims not to understand why his mom left him behind and when she decided to raise his two sisters. He has gained a deep appreciation for his grandmother, who has helped him through the process. “;It makes me feel better that my grandmother was kind enough to take me in,”; he said.





        ”;The Resilient Spirit”;: A portfolio of portraits of and by the youth of Hale Kipa

» Ala Moana Macy's : Tomorrow through Sept. 13


» Kahala Mall: Sept. 15 to 21


» Punahou School's Thurston Chapel: Nov. 16 to Dec. 6




His grandmother became his photographic subject when he participated in ProjectFocus Hawaii, started by Laurie Breeden Callies and Lisa Uesugi in 2005 on the premise that everyone needs a voice. The program uses photography as a medium for teaching at-risk children to express themselves while gaining such life skills as goal-setting and building self-esteem. This year's 13 participants will show their work at Macy's Ala Moana from tomorrow through Sept. 13 before it moves to Kahala Mall in September and Punahou School in November.

Brendan (no last names are used due to the family dynamics) chose his grandmother as his subject simply to express gratitude. “;She does so much for me when we have so little,”; he said. “;We have low income, but she makes the best if it.”;

The project “;seemed like a good opportunity,”; Brendan said, as it fit into his plan to make better life choices.

“;I'm a better person and friend now,”; he said. “;My grandparents say I don't talk back to them much anymore. I listen and do what they want me to do. I'm treating them how I want them to treat me.”; He aspires to become a professional body boarder.

BRENDAN DISPLAYS resilience acquired through dealing with tough, everyday circumstances. Fittingly, “;The Resilient Spirit”; was the theme chosen for ProjectFocus Hawaii this year. The participants, ranging in age from 13 to 18, are all in the foster care system and being served by Hale Kipa.

“;Growing up as a teenager is hard enough without all of the other challenges and complications these kids have to face,”; said Callies, noting that the children working on the project were placed in foster care or residential treatment facilities because their families were either absent or in crisis. “;They are survivors, and this exhibit reflects their resiliency in the face of extreme adversity.

“;Some have passed through more than a dozen foster homes. Several were abandoned as infants. Some lived in squalor under homeless bridge communities. Some were removed from their homes because of abuse in one form or another.”;

Fifteen-year-old Arisha can relate to adversity. “;We saw our parents taking drugs, crack, cocaine, shooting up,”; she said. She recalls being beaten and being held down in a bathtub full of water. “;With all of these experiences, I have big trust issues,”; she said.

Joining ROTC at her local high school has helped her gain some confidence. “;Everything just got better,”; she said. “;I'm taking a leadership role.”;

ProjectFocus gave Arisha another opportunity to make new friends while learning skills.

Arisha chose her friend Michelle as her subject because she allows her to be herself, offers a listening ear and is someone she can trust.

DURING THE 12- week internship, the kids learned to use cameras and learned about the art of photography. They also took part in an outing at Kualoa Ranch's Secret Island, attended a pinhole camera workshop at La Pietra School for Girls, watched “;Slava's Snowshow”; at the Hawaii Theatre and embarked on a shopping spree at Macy's Ala Moana.

“;We always try to provide the kids with experiences that they might not otherwise receive through their normal channels,”; said Callies, who hopes that the project enhanced the self-esteem, self-awareness and self-reflection of this year's participants.

“;We hope they learned about commitment and accountability. We hope that through this process they have learned how much the person they photographed means to them, and vice versa.”;




ProjectFocus Hawaii



This year's group was much more challenging to work with for varying reasons.

“;For obvious reasons, these kids have built walls around themselves for protection and survival. It was more challenging to build a level of trust with them,”; she said.

“;Unlike other groups, some children had a hard time selecting a person of significance on their life to photograph. One participant said he was the most significant person in his life because he was the only one he could count on,”; she explained.

The child welfare system had its own layers of protection, and the complexity made it hard to accomplish goals, according to Callies. “;There were so many people assigned to each child, and combined with the mire of protocols, we found it nearly impossible to accomplish our mission of providing a positive experience for these kids. But persevere we did and, in doing so, shared a common bond with our participants, which was resiliency in the face of adversity.”;