Lessons From Waipi‘o Valley – Youth and Adults Learn Together in the Huinawai Project

Immersed in a different world, free of cell phones, internet, and distractions, 26 youth and 15 adult mentors camped out, worked side by side in the lo‘i (taro patch), cooked food harvested from the land, brainstormed fresh ideas to promote teen health, and shared the lessons that Waipi‘o Valley teaches.

Huinawai participants at Waipio Valley lookout after the campout

Huinawai participants at Waipio Valley lookout after the campout

Hosted by Hāmākua Youth Foundation, with support of North Hawai‘i Drug-Free Coalition and Five Mountains Hawai‘i, the Huinawai Youth and Mentor Enrichment Camp was so-named for “a pond or pool created by the intersection of different streams.”  By bringing together youth from different groups and different parts of the island to plunge into a collective pool of knowledge, the Huinawai Project provided a diverse yet inclusive experience co-created by participants.

The journey started and ended with Hawaiian chants and protocols, asking permission to enter the Valley, and—as with a canoe voyage—leaving any negativity behind.  Afterwards, the group shared their new learning with the community, in the tradition of hō‘ike, with a community gathering and lunch at the Lookout.  Ideas generated by the youth leaders will be forwarded to mentors and adult policy makers for consideration, including Mayor Kenoi who sent a representative to the hō‘ike presentation.

“One thing I learned was to take responsible risks,” said Melia Orr, youth participant from Kona.  “When you step into the lo‘i, you could sink in four feet, or be on hard ground.  You have to let yourself go, meet other people, and show your real self to people.”

“It was very experiential,” said adult mentor Jude McAnesey of Waimea.  “Our hosts had a lot of aloha.  They really embraced us and helped us learn how to create ‘ohana and community with each other, to respect the land, respect the ancestors… It was really rich.”


Ku‘ulei and Ben Badua hosted the Huinawai group at their beautiful land called Ku‘ulei’s Haven.  Mahealani Maiku‘i, Executive Director of Hāmākua Youth Foundation, acted as the cultural ambassador to Waipi‘o Valley.  She and husband Carl Sims organized the activities and taught participants chants, how to pick lū‘au leaf for laulau, and corms for pa‘i ‘ai (cooked taro) and poi.  Holly Algood, a Board Member of Hawaii Mediation Center, led group discussions in a “Way of Council” format that invites all to share.  And University of Hawai‘i Mānoa Hawaiian Language student, Jacob Elarco, told traditional stories and helped with the chants.

“It was great to see everybody come and bond together,” said Sims.  “The kids grew very close in a short time.”

“I’m so blessed and fortunate to be part of this amazing trip and group of people,” said youth participant Michelle Fratinardo of Laupahoehoe.  “I learned that without our culture, we would not be who we are today.”  Fratinardo and other youth worked as a team to clear about 200 feet of ‘auwai (channel bringing fresh water flow to the kalo) in about 90 minutes.  “I didn’t know you could clean so much so fast,” she said.

“They worked hard, and when they could see water starting to flow, they knew they were making a difference,” said adult mentor Kei-Lin Cerf.  “And they found a way to make this work fun… they made games out of everything.”

“Working hard can be fun at the same time,” said youth participant Raynard Kalani Hall-Chong of Kaloa Camp (Hilo).  He and others indicated they’d like to come back and spend more time, something Maiku‘i said often happens after people first get their feet wet in Waipi‘o Valley.

Niqi Duldulao demonstrates how to make pa'i 'ai from the harvested taro while other Huinawai participants present an oli

Niqi Duldulao demonstrates how to make pa’i ‘ai from the harvested taro while other Huinawai participants present an oli

“The vision for this event was to create a safe container for teens and their mentors to deepen the connections with the land, host culture and each other.  We wanted an environment that would inspire new youth leaders to share their ideas about making our island healthier for our youth – and Waipi‘o Valley was perfect,” said Robin Mullin, Executive Director of Five Mountains Hawaii.

The idea of gathering different youth groups from around the island to network and contribute to solutions began last July when a youth advisory council exploratory meeting was held in North Kohala as part of the Models Not Bottles project, in partnership with the County of Hawaii’s Office of the Mayor.

“The teens wanted more time together and fun experiences to learn, so this year we tried a three-day camp format.  We saw the teens naturally share leadership, and they are already asking to do it again,” said Mullin.

“We need to make it a week long,” said Fratinardo.

“It was wonderful,” said Cerf.  “As the youth came together, the different groups just blurred together into one.  Even the youth were surprised… they couldn’t really remember whose group they were with.  I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Adult mentors Holly Algood, Deanna Kackley, Clarysse Nunokawa, Robin Mullin showing the Huinawai logo beach towel

Adult mentors Holly Algood, Deanna Kackley, Clarysse Nunokawa, Robin Mullin showing the Huinawai logo beach towel

The North Hawai‘i Drug-Free Coalition, a project of Five Mountains Hawai‘i, is a regional volunteer organization committed to developing strong, sustaining relationships for Healthy Communities Choosing to Live Drug Free. For more information, visit www.fivemountains.org/nhdfc.

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