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On Hawai‘i, Reclaiming Land and Identity

Afterschool program helps build a healthy community by teaching kids agroforestry, heritage, and restoring 100 acres of land. Direct Relief's Fund for Health Equity is supporting the work.


Health Equity

huiMAU's Kalā Asing teaching kids during a summer program at Pu'u Mali in 2017. (Photo courtesy of huiMAU)

Soccer. Dance. Art. After-school activities in the continental United States tend to encompass a familiar range of options. But for kids growing up among the dramatic cliffs, sapphire ocean, and verdant landscape of Paʻauilo, in East Hāmākua on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, there is no organized activity more popular than agroforestry — accompanied by lessons about Hawaiian culture, history, and the importance of community.

The unusual extracurricular gained a foothold in the rural community of 600 people after the local Boys and Girls Club shut down in 2016. Since the town’s kindergarten through ninth-grade school does not have a sports team or other enrichment options, kids would have been left adrift if not for a nonprofit called Hui Mālama i ke Ala ʻŪlili, abbreviated as huiMAU.

“There is a huge need for after-school enrichment for kids in a safe space. For us, the medium is also Hawaiian culture. We’re engaging them with ‘Āina, loving and caring of the land. It also includes cultivating the land, growing your own food, and growing foods that are healthy for us,” said Noʻeau Peralto, who co-founded huiMAU with his partner, Haley Kailiehu, and serves as executive director.

“We are trying to instill in our kids a sense of Kuleana (responsibility) for this place that our ancestors come from and have been in for generations,” he said.

“The health of the ‘Āina is tied to the health of people, and health of people is tied to the health of ‘Āina. One cannot be healthy unless the other is healthy.”

With programming for kids every day after school and during a 4-week summer camp, huiMAU has access to two restoration sites that total about 100 acres and a 5-acre farm. They also have space leased from a local Japanese community center and church, where kids can do their homework, as part of huiMAU’s youth programs.

Twice a week, kids visit either the restoration sites or the farm and learn traditional farming methods while also being taught the Hawaiian language and the history of the land. The kids have also helped to clear over 12 acres of eucalyptus trees, which took hold after the local sugar plantations closed in the 1990s. Peralto and a professional team he hired are replacing the trees with ‘Ulu, an ancestral breadfruit tree that can produce hundreds of pounds of starch annually at maturity.

Beyond these formal lessons, huiMAU, the town’s second-largest employer, also focuses on less formal lessons for everyone in the community, with an overall approach that recognizes invisible but powerful cultural barriers that are not addressed by one-size-fits-all solutions, and which demonstrate the importance of incorporating cultural traditions and identity into addressing them.

huiMAU at Kahalu’u Manowai on July 9, 2021. Kids cleaned up the beach and learned about the historical site, including the process by which it was dated and rebuilt. (Photo courtesy of huiMAU)

“I felt like an outsider (in Hāmākua) as a Micronesian, but huiMAU shunted that aside and really helped me the honor and be proud of what I am, where I came from, and my ancestors. It really welcomed diversity,” said Lucon Route, 20, a huiMAU after-aschool program alum who is now studying agroforestry at the University of Hawai‘i.

Route moved to the Big Island from the Micronesian island of Pohnpei when he was four years old and described his background as “very poor.” He said that Peralto catalyzed his interest in agroforestry and further solidified his desire to use his knowledge to help his community.

As a young kid, Route said he had experience with sustenance farming but was not initially interested in agroforestry, opting to go to the Boys & Girls Club’s judo program. But when it closed, he joined huiMAU.

“The journey with them has been overwhelmingly fun,” Route said, highlighting the fulfillment that comes along with being around people with shared interests, learning and applying new ideas, and seeing oneself as part of a larger community.

“I value connections,” Route said.

healthy ‘Āina, Healthy people

Before the pandemic, huiMAU had 40 kids participating in their programs and hosted a monthly “ʻOhana (family) Night” where kids would help make a big dinner and share what they learned. But when the state government announced a lockdown in March of last year, Peralto said he and his team immediately began to think of how they could pivot to help support their community, especially those who were most vulnerable, like kids, the elderly, and those out of work.

“It’s a part of our cause to establish a healthy community. We believe it starts at the level of ‘Ohana.”

Paʻauilo and the surrounding towns had been subjected to sugar cane plantation economics for much of the 20th century. When those closed, the area faced rampant unemployment, forcing residents to drive to Kona, on the other side of the island, 60 miles away. With Covid-19, the tourism industry shut down, leaving many residents without income.

huiMAU decided that the most pressing need they could assist with was food security. Neighboring towns have some of the highest food insecurity rates in the state. They began harvesting taro to make poi, a local staple food, and Laulau, meat wrapped in taro leaves.

“We had no grant funding, we just did it,” Peralto said.

They succeeded in making 80 prepared meals. People then began dropping off locally-grown produce, including avocados, tangerines, and bananas, which huiMAU made available to the community. The Consuelo Foundation, a nonprofit which helps disadvantaged women, children, and families in Hawai‘i and the Philippines, was the first to help them financially after this pivot, which was critical until CARES Act funding arrived.

huiMAU staff members in July 2021 mapping a historical site the nonprofit is currently maintaining. UH-Hilo Junior Lucon Route is pictured in a gray shirt. (Photo courtesy of huiMAU)

At the initiative’s peak, huiMAU was serving at least 500 people, about 80% of the area, weekly. And the food being distributed remained both local and fresh. They also offered space and supervision for kids to attend school via video conferencing during the pandemic.

“We wanted to be intentional about the food we’re giving out, no giving out canned food from the store. We wanted to be supporting local farmers, who had no place to sell to, so we were buying produce at full market value and giving it out for free,” Peralto said.

They are continuing to distribute food now, on a monthly basis. Peralto noted that this marked the first time in 150 years in which the land supported a local food economy instead of a food export economy.

He sees the food program as a natural extension of the work huiMAU had done before the pandemic.

Through Direct Relief’s Health Equity Fund and in cooperation with the Consuelo Foundation’s new Ka Hālauloa a Kanipahu program, huiMAU was able to purchase a van to reach more kids.

“The health of the ‘Āina is tied to the health of people, and health of people is tied to the health of ‘Āina. One cannot be healthy unless the other is healthy,” he said.

a RETURN TO positive change

As the pandemic begins to recede, huiMAU found that a pre-pandemic issue reemerged, namely, transportation. With limited options to pick kids up from school and take them to the sites, especially since many parents have gone back to work, the group has been limited in how many kids they could accommodate and how often they could go to sites.

Kids holding banana stalk fibers, used to make string for traditional Hawaiian kites, as part of the HoAMa Youth Summer Program in June 2021 at Koholālele, one of huiMAu’s restoration and education sites. (Photo courtesy of huiMAU)

“We are taking a systemic approach to the problem of child abuse and neglect. It’s a part of our cause to establish a healthy community. We believe it starts at the level of ‘Ohana. To effect change, it starts without organizations… it starts with treating every kid in our program as our own ‘Ohana and their parents as our own ‘Ohana,” Peralto said.

The mission of huiMAU is personal for Peralto. He said his parents and grandparents instilled Aloha and a sense of responsibility for the land and people and the importance of education. From a young age, he worked with his grandfather to make gardens. When he got older, the agricultural bond endured when he would come home from college breaks to help clean his grandpa’s yard. It was during this work that he began to think of how he could contribute.

“I wanted to do something to protect this place, back then from development,” he said. His goals expanded during his college years as he and his partner were exposed to different Hawaiian culture-focused educational initiatives while studying at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where Peralto would earn a Ph.D. in indigenous politics.

“We wanted [our program] to be very specific. We did not want to borrow a curriculum. We wanted to teach kids about where they call home: ‘What is the story of this stream?'” Peralto said. “They learn state capitals, but not the name of the stream next to the school. I had to go to college to learn local history and culture and language. Our kids should learn that as kids in our community,” he said.

“We looked to elders who are thriving — what created a foundation for them to live and thrive in this place?”

By teaching kids about their home, he hopes they will consider getting a higher education and then coming back to help build their communities in Hāmākua on the Big Island—which is a challenge in a place where success is defined, as Peralto put it, “by your ability to leave.”

He said the top community problems, like many rural areas, involve drug abuse and domestic violence. Sex trafficking is also a problem in surrounding towns. The limited job market, coupled with a higher than average cost of living compared to U.S. averages, has forced many families to leave in recent years. Often, they are replaced by people with financial resources from outside the area, which makes housing more expensive.

As with the program he created, Peralto found his path within the heritage and traditions of his people.

“We looked to elders who are thriving — what created a foundation for them to live and thrive in this place?” Peralto said. “Aloha ‘Āina, that’s the value to instill in kids. Love of homelands. But more than land. It’s about genuine connections to a place that gives you a sense of identity and sense of belonging,” he said.

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