By Léo Azambuja
“Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makakarating sa paroroonan,” says an old Filipino proverb. It means, “A person who does not remember where he came from will never reach his destination.”
Just seven years ago, a cultural center that would help to perpetuate the Filipino heritage on Kaua‘i — and also provide a bona-fide venue for all kinds of events — was all but a dream among the island’s Filipino community.
Not anymore. Last month, construction workers poured the cement foundation and erected the walls for Phase I of the Kaua‘i Philippine Cultural Center in Puhi. Once the 11,000-square-foot building is completed next year — two years ahead of schedule — they will start fundraising for an adjacent building twice as big for larger events.
“It’s a cultural center and it’s a place for all,” KPCC Chair and President Lesther Calipjo said. “This center will be open to everybody.”
Back in 2010, when Calipjo became president of the Kaua‘i Filipino Chamber of Commerce, one of his goals was to bring unity among the community, not just among Filipinos, he said. So he proposed building a center that had been talked about for many years but had never been acted upon.
“It was Lesther (Calipjo) who put his foot forward and made the call,” said KPCC board member Marynel Valenzuela.
So Calipjo went to work. He approached Kaua‘i’s state legislators to seek help with funding the project. He also appointed Sonia Topenio as chairwoman of the 2020 Vision Committee, tasked with exploring ways to get the center built. From there, Calipjo arranged a meeting with Filipino centers on O‘ahu and Maui to get pointers on what to do, plus learn from their mistakes.
In 2011, Calipjo stepped down as president of Kaua‘i Filipino Chamber of Commerce to concentrate on the KPCC project. Six years later, after numerous sleepless nights, countless hours of weekly board meetings and planning fundraising events, the KPCC board has raised more than $2 million to make the cultural center a palpable reality.
“This has been a journey for us, it’s mind-blowing,” Calipjo said. “When I sleep at night, when I wake up in the morning, sometimes one o’clock in the morning, the first thing I ask myself is, ‘How do we do this, how can I get these guys to donate, how can we get this project to come from the ground?”
Add to that, all the work done by the 10 board members and four officers is on a volunteering basis. “None of us is paid,” said Valenzuela, joking the reason they do it is “because we’re crazy.” She acknowledged former board members who have passed away; Oscar Portugal and Ernie Passion.
“When we were just thinking about this, we were really excited,” she said, adding she had no idea how much work it involved. “But the truth is, you have got to be inspired.”
The vision was to complete Phase I in 2020, according to Valenzuela. “We’ve done it a little faster,” she said. Calipjo joked it’s now Vision 2018, because it is scheduled to finish next year.
And they did it without borrowing a single dollar. Calipjo said when he met with Filipino centers from other islands, he asked what they had done that they wouldn’t do again.
“The answer was, ‘We would not borrow money,’” Calipjo said.
Board member Paul Kyno said if KPCC board wanted to leverage some money, the project could have been finished even earlier. But all they are using is cash from annual fundraising events, from a $1.5 million grant-in-aid from the Hawai‘i State Legislature and from many private donors — including a $250,000 donation from someone who wished not to be named.
“The only thing we’re leveraging, and I can’t stress it enough, it’s the people that are actually the community that are doing this, the construction companies, the suppliers,” said Kyno, adding many contractors and vendors are donating almost half of their bids. “It’s amazing! That’s what’s happening; that’s what’s making it possible.”
Calipjo said Phase I is about a half-million dollars shy of funds to be completed, but he is confident that with community support, including in-kind work, the building will be ready in time for next year’s fundraising event.
“We’re planning to do the next fundraiser here next year,” he said, pointing to the land where Phase II is planned to be built, with all the infrastructure already laid out. “Hopefully, if we can get the funding, this will be done, we’re pushing it now.”
One of the reasons they are pushing for more donations this year, Valenzuela said, is because someone is willing to match the donations.
“But we have to do the work, we as board members and people from this community,” she said. “We have to show we can do that instead of them just giving the money.”
Besides doing straight donations, community members can purchase square tiles measuring four inches for as little as $100, and have their names engraved on them. Six-inch-square tiles sell for $200, and eight-inch tiles sell for $500. Businesses are being offered larger tiles in different shapes, at a higher donation. Their donations will be forever remembered in the tiles adorning the building’s walls.
The center is on a 15-acre piece of land. Phase I and Phase II will be on a 3.5-acre-property leased from the County of Kaua‘i for $1 per year for 99 years. The rest of the land, 11.5 acres, is leased from Grove Farm Co., also at a symbolic rate, for $100 per year.
Finding the land wasn’t easy, but Calipjo said he was determined, looked at several places and talked to a lot of landowners. Ultimately, they found the land in Puhi, “right in the heart of town,” a place where much of urban sprawl has been happening in the last few years, with a new shopping center, new housing, highway improvements, and even an elementary school.
“It’s a long, long way, it’s a lot of history, but we got it done,” he said.
Visit www.kauaiphilippineculturalcenter.org or their Facebook page to donate or for more information.