Bright side: Doing it for the keiki

Ever notice how some folks go all starry eyed when they arrive in Hawaii?

When I mentioned that to Steve Marks, director for Umeke’s charity fishing tournament, he said, “They just woke up.”

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Hawaii has that effect on people.

Those who live here are rarely so starry eyed, even though we appreciate the beauty of the Big Island — especially now that the vog has gone away. Locals, however, are more grounded by knowing that Hawaii has all of the same issues and problems inherent in any community, just better scenery.

There are also a lot of very old and often very large families here, and that generates a natural sense of community and friendliness. Those traits, along with a slower pace, are becoming less prevalent on the increasingly urbanized mainland.

Here on the Big Island, until recently, almost all of our towns were villages. It felt like everyone knew each other, or was related to someone who knew somebody you knew.

When Costco first opened, going shopping was a social event, where one might go from aisle to aisle and conversation to conversation. Nowadays, people in Costco still stop in the aisles — often to gossip — but mostly because they are perturbed and confused by Costco moving the rice to where the beer used to be (when they don’t need rice, they need beer).

Making it worse, there are so damn many of them stopped in the aisles these days that you have to tie boat fenders on your shopping cart just to get to dairy section and out before your Social Security benefits kick in. Where did all these people come from?

If you ask new people what drew them to Hawaii, you’ll likely hear stories about what Hawaii does for them, or what they want to experience here. To hear someone speak of what they are doing for Hawaii, you’ll probably have to talk to a local person, or a long-time resident.

There are people here who are stepping up and taking on the creation of a movement to better the Kona community. To talk to one, look no further than Nakoa Pabre, owner of Umeke’s Restaurants and founder of Keiki of Da Aina Foundation. When you talk to him, you get the distinct feeling that all he thinks about is what he can do for Hawaii, especially his home community of Kailua-Kona.

No grass grows between his toes and he’s always on the move, so be prepared, because at some point in the conversation, he will be called away by something that just came up. He’s the kind of guy who starts his day at 4 a.m. and after his morning work out, might be found down at the Old Airport park, talking to homeless people.

Why?

Because he wants to try and understand their point of view in order to craft a solution to this issue — because it is affecting kids.

Nakoa said it has become so bad that when the kids go to play baseball, they are finding drug paraphernalia like syringes on the fields and in the dugouts. He said that the score keeper has trouble getting into his box because of homeless people who have set up camp in there. He has even seen people engaging in sex, clearly visible to kids on the field.

Most folks might say, “they need to fix that” or “they need to do this about that.”

“They” being the government, a fairy god mother, or “the people who are supposed to take care of stuff like that.”

Not Nakoa. He understands government can’t be all things to all people and “They” need public and private partnerships to get things done. He takes it one step further though. He’s not going to wait on the wheels of government if they are grinding too slowly. He looks for ways to get things done, with or without “They.” For example he’s looking into forming a private security company to make the parks and town safe places, with his mind on how things used to be.

“I have three boys,” Nakoa said. “They are 12, 9 and 2 and something just came to me one day. This stuff has to get done, and it wasn’t. Things were going down hill in some ways. The boys and the other kids in town are who I do all this for. We can’t let Kona go the way of so many other places, and it’s best to start now before it is too hard to turn around.”

The homeless situation overlaps with the ball fields at the Old Airport park and Nakoa coaches baseball, so that connection is easy to see. But that’s just a start. Nakoa also sees that kids benefit from being taught traditional subsistence skills such as bamboo pole fishing, throwing net, opihi picking, gathering a’ama crab and wana.

His foundation hosts sessions with kids where they immerse them in these practices and get closer to the natural world and the island culture. Digital devices are left at home.

“When they get out there, fishing and gathering with other kids, they don’t want to go home,” Steve Marks said. “In today’s world, most kids don’t want to leave home and their video games to go outside. Nakoa turns that around.”

In addition, the Keiki of Da Aina Foundation hosts a number of youth mentorship sessions, where adults inspire kids to learn, grow and develop into successful leaders of tomorrow.

On top of working with homeless, mentoring, looking for ways to make parks and town safer, coaching baseball, hosting traditional learning field trips and even throwing the odd pig hunting tournament, Nakoa and crew have staged a “backpack drive” which produced two hundred backpacks stuffed with school supplies for deserving kids.

But these guys don’t even stop there. Last weekend, Umeke’s Restaurants partnered with Kona Brewing Company to hold their third annual fishing tournament, this time benefiting HUGS Of Hawaii. HUGS is a home grown Hawaii organization on a mission to strengthen island families by improving their quality of life as they face the emotional and financial hardships of caring for a seriously ill child.

They called their event “Hanapa’a for HUGS” and they raised $15,000. Not a bad effort at all!

Everyone had a great time as well. Forty-nine teams caught a total of 39 pieces of fish, including eight marlin, seven ahi, 17 ono, six aku and one lonely mahi mahi.

The teams vied for a total of $5,825 in cash purse, and literally mountains of merchandise. Marks oversees the tournament and organizes the prizes. Among tons of other goodies, they gave away a mountain of coolers so high that it cast a shadow upon Hualalai when the sun was in the west. These prizes were sponsored by Ace Hardware, J. Hara Store, Humpy’s, Lavernes, Fair Winds, Mana Juice, Pacific Rim, Sea Quest, Hawaii Pre Cast, The Feeding Leaf and Bomboy’s Lures. This event was a huge win-win for the fishermen and the families supported by HUGS of Hawaii.

HUGS was started in 1982 by a group of volunteers at Unity Church in Honolulu, who saw families with seriously ill children struggling financially and emotionally. HUGS serves about 370 families throughout the state, of which 41 live on the Big Island. While other organizations may help specific diseases, HUGS helps children, birth to 21 years old, who have diverse life-threatening illnesses, including cancer, heart issues, kidney or liver ailments and chromosomal defects.

One of the HUGS families was in attendance at the tournament awards party. The parents brought heir daughter, who is only one and a half years old and fighting cancer.

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“Some people thought that all the money raised went to Oahu, because that is where HUGS is based,” Steve Marks said. “But you know, when the fishermen actually saw the family from Waimea that HUGS helps out, they went quiet. Some of them even had tears in their eyes.”

Nakoa Pabre, Steve Marks and all the gang a Umeke’s and Keiki of Da Aina are great examples of folks out making a difference, turning tears in kids eyes to stars, and stars in adults eyes to tears.

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