By Lois Ann Ell
In the industrialized mecca of Nawiliwili Harbor now stands a beacon of its past: A colorful mosaic depicting the pre-harbor days of the culturally and historically rich area. The art piece was a collaboration by children under the direction of Kathleen Ho of Ke Kahua ‘O Malamalama, the Art and Culture program of the non-profit organization Hale ‘Opio Kaua`i, Inc.
“As this place spoke to me, this design developed,” Ho explained to a large group on August 22 when the mosaic was unveiled. Historian and cultural practitioner, Randy Wichman, presented the history of Nawiliwili, evident in the mosaic, which was made up of five ahupua’a, five streams and five peaks named after five celestial navigation stars.
“When I counted up all the kids (who helped with the project), it ended up being 55 kids,” Ho said. “It made me start noticing the number five.” “I realized it was like a hand,” she said, adding that hands represent helping others.
Ho said when the question of ‘what do I want’ arises in life, we should ask ourselves, ‘How do I serve?’ Serving is what Ho has been doing for Kaua’i’s youth for over 26 years. She began working at Hale ‘Opio Kaua`i, Inc. in 1987, when she was hired as the photography teacher for the after-school art program for children in the organization’s group home. She worked with kids from ages 10-18, for anywhere from one month to two years.
“It was therapeutic, but it was not art therapy,” she clarified. “It was just a safe and nurturing place for the kids to explore another way of expressing themselves in a positive way.”
In 2009 the Therapeutic Group Home Program ended; transitioning into foster homes. The art and cultural program then broadened to include all youth from Kaua’i’s community. The program expanded culturally with the help of Ho’s husband Kelvin, who worked with the students to make their own canoe paddles and resurrect a dilapidated canoe. The youth also go on excursions across the island, including Koke’e and Na Pali Coast.
The Hale ‘Opio Learning Resource Center in Lihu’e has been home base for the Art and Culture program. It is a workspace equipped with computers, ceramic supplies, a dark room for photography and an outside space where youth make paddles and work on other projects.
Inside the Center, the walls are filled with artwork the program participants have made over the years: self-portrait photographs, murals and paintings. On a shelf is five clay figurines—family members—reclining, gathered around a clay television. It’s the work a child did years ago.
“She created a reality because that was probably not her reality,” Ho said of the art piece, showing a tangible example of how the art is a vehicle for the children to express themselves and what they are going through.
Another wall is filled with various awards the children have won over the years.
The Garden Island Arts Council created a special section for the youth in the Hale ‘Opio Art program at their shows, which allowed the kids to enter pieces, help hang shows and win multiple awards.
“The community art shows allowed them to step it up; to come up with ideas and a theme,” Ho said. “Just about everything we entered won an award.”
“And the kids who won these awards, they had never won anything in their life,” Ho added.
“Early on, a person told me not to have any expectations,” Ho said of what has become her life-long career. As she gazes over at the wall of the photographs of children she has worked with over the years, her compassion and love for them is palpable; the hallway is heavy with emotion as she quietly mentions that some of them are not alive anymore.
She admitted it can be difficult at times, but recalled a story: One day at the water park on O’ahu, a woman approached Ho and told her what a difference she had made in her life. Ho said the woman was a successful adult with a good job, and a mother of three children.
“I thought, okay, I just needed that wind in the wings,” she confessed.
Founded in 1975, Hale ‘Opio Kaua`i Inc. is a non-profit organization, its mission focused on improving the quality of life for youth on Kaua’i. Laverne Bishop, Executive Director, has been with the organization since it began. Her dedication and compassion is, like Ho’s, evident just being in her presence; even more so when she talks about her life’s work.
“We started out as a community organization to help kids that were in trouble and families that were in trouble,” Bishop said, who oversees multiple programs the organization is involved in, all centered around education, prevention, diversion and treatment for young people on Kaua’i.
Bishop said the art program has always been an integral part of the organization.
“The art program allowed them (the kids) to inhale and exhale; it was a time they could let their guard down,” Bishop said.
Hale ‘Opio Kaua`i, Inc. works with various agencies to provide many programs including but not limited to: Therapeutic Foster Homes, Emergency Shelter Services, Kaua`i Teen Court, Family Group Conferencing, Victim Impact Classes, Independent Living, First Jobs Academy, School Connections, Positive Action, Street Smart, Teen Dating Violence Prevention, Making Proud Choices and Truancy Prevention and Intervention.
“We like to work with the kids who need the most help,” Bishop said. “We continue to focus on the well-being of young people, so they do have a future of opportunity.”
For more information or to offer support, visit www.haleopio.org.