Soldiers, volunteers come together to support youth program

  • Hookahua Ai member Shelly Keawe, left, receives some bamboo from Pvt. Harold Francis as they work to clear loi as part of an effort in support of the youth mentorship program. (Cameron Miculka/West Hawaii Today)

HAWI — As a senior mentee with Hookahua Ai, a mentorship program under Kahua Paa Mua, Jamiel Ventura recognizes the importance of being able to grow his own food and the sense of empowerment that comes with it.

“If you’re providing yourself your own food, then you’re really succeeding,” said Ventura, 19. “Because the three basic needs of human survival is food, water and shelter. If you master growing food for your own self, the rest will soon follow.”

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On Saturday, about a dozen soldiers currently training at Pohakuloa Training Area, joined by volunteers from throughout the community, came out to help youth like Ventura strive toward that goal by working to restore three loi, or wetland taro patches, for future taro cultivation.

“And honestly, I’m actually quite stoked,” said Ventura, who called it one of the biggest projects he’s seen in his time with the program, “because I never really got to work so close around soldiers and stuff, so I thought it’s kind of cool seeing a military integration with civilians work.”

Throughout the morning, soldiers, who were part of the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade stationed on Oahu, and volunteers spent the morning clearing the loi of Guinea grass, koa haole and other brush to support the program’s efforts to help youth cultivate a crop that fed Hawaiians long before cargo ships started arriving to the islands.

“If we’re talking food resilience in the future, we’ve got to go back to visit our origin,” said David Fuertes, executive director of Kahua Paa Mua.

That idea of knowing one’s origin is something Fuertes emphasizes to his youth, along with encouraging them to know their values and purpose which, he added, is how they can ultimately create their destiny.

As the soldiers and volunteers gathered in one loi before work got underway, Fuertes reiterated those points, saying for this project, their destiny was for the work done this day to have a far-reaching impact.

“The kids can feed themselves; they can feed their family,” he told the group. “The communities can feed their families.”

Sgt. Candice Hernandez said for her, the day was about future generations and providing the youth with the opportunity to live off the land.

She said she felt honored to be part of a cause like Saturday’s.

“It’s definitely one of the most honorable aspects of being in the military, to come out and reach out to the community and be a part of future generations’ benefits,” she said. “I believe this really benefits everyone.”

Ventura said he hopes the project can show what can happen when military members and the public work together for a common goal.

“It can let the public community know, just around the island, that, hey, there doesn’t have to be this barrier between military and civilians, and both can work together in cohesive unison,” he said. “Because when it all comes down to it, we’re all humans, right?”

“Of course they have their different jobs; we have our different jobs,” he added, “but I think that form of separation is what breaks down communities. We need to be more united.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Luis Ortiz said Saturday marked a great opportunity for the soldiers to not just engage with the community, but also learn something about Hawaiian culture.

“I think the best part of the project is the cultural aspect of it,” he said. “Soldiers a lot of times, they come to Hawaii and they don’t get to experience that side of the culture.”

And getting soldiers out and engaging with the community, he said, is an important part of what they try to do.

“They just don’t come here to train. They also come to the island to help and be part of projects like this,” he said. “Every unit that comes to PTA is asked — and is almost expected — to contribute in some way or form.”

Lt. Col. JR Borce, commander of Pohakuloa Training Area, said community is one of his top priorities, and part of that is getting soldiers to recognize the importance of the land.

By taking part in an effort to restore loi, they can get a sense of that significance.

“Now they’re going to see their work being done that can help educate our young children of Hawaii,” he said.

When they leave the farm, Borce added, he hopes they not only come away with an appreciation for the richness of the local culture, but also an understanding of the legacy they’re leaving for kids to also learn and connect with the land, culture and community.

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And with some of the groundwork laid, Ventura sees the restoration as a huge step toward a more resilient community.

“There’s many more,” he said. “But that’s one.”

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